A common question we receive from potential clients is, “What happens to my things if I die without a Will?” This is usually followed by the question, “If I die without a Will, doesn’t everything just pass to my wife/husband?” or by the question, “Does the Commonwealth get all my things if I die without a Will?”
This short article is meant to explain in simple terms what happens to peoples’ non-beneficiary designated assets if they die without a Will in Pennsylvania.
Beneficiary Designations and Property Passing By Operation of Law
Having a Will, or not having Will, has no effect on who receives your assets at death if you have named a beneficiary. Some assets, such as IRAs or life insurance policies, typically name beneficiaries. If you do not remember naming someone you can contact your benefits person or life insurance agent for a copy of you Beneficiary Designation Form. If you have an asset that names a beneficiary then this asset passes to the named beneficiary whether you have a Will or not. This also is true for assets that you own jointly with another person, such as a house you hold as “Joint Tenants With a Right of Survivorship” with another person. Your other assets such as stocks, bonds, real estate, furniture, cars or any other thing that you own that has no beneficiary will pass as part of your estate at death. If you have a Will, the Will states who gets these things. If you have no Will, then the Commonwealth dictates to whom these assets pass.
What it Means if you Die “Intestate”
If you die without a Will you are “Intestate” and your assets pass in accordance with rules set up by the Commonwealth. These rules were created to clarify property rights to the assets of deceased people without Wills. The rules try to give assets to the person or people that the Commonwealth believes would have likely received the assets had the deceased person ever gotten around to writing a Will. Sometimes the State gets it right and sometimes it does not.
A common misunderstanding is that if you die without a Will your assets may end up passing to the Commonwealth. This is possible, but only if you have no surviving relatives. The intestate rules are set out in Chapter 21 of the PEF Code.
A Breakdown of Pennsylvania’s Laws of Intestacy
Most people assume that if they die without a Will all their assets pass automatically to their surviving spouse and this is not necessarily true!
The surviving spouse receives everything only if the intestate deceased had no surviving issue (children, grandchildren, etc.) or parents.
If there is a surviving spouse and issue, and the issue is issue of both the surviving spouse and the deceased, the surviving spouse gets the first $30,000.00 and one-half of the remaining assets. The other one-half of the assets are divided between issue.
If there is a surviving spouse and surviving issue, but at least one of the issue is not the issue of the surviving spouse (e.g., a child from the deceased’s previous marriage), then the intestate estate is divided one-half to the surviving spouse and one-half to issue.
If there is a surviving spouse, no surviving issue, but the deceased’s mother or father survives the intestate decedent, the surviving spouse gets the first $30,000.00 plus one-half the balance while the surviving parents divide the remaining one-half share.
If there is no surviving spouse, then the entire intestate estate passes to surviving issue. If there is no surviving issue, then the deceased’s parents divide the entire estate. If there is no surviving spouse, no surviving issue and no surviving parents then the assets are divided between the issues of the parents (typically the deceased’s siblings or if they have died, the nieces and nephews).
If there is no surviving spouse, issue or surviving issue of parents, but at least one grandparent survives the decedent, then one-half to the paternal grandparents or grandparent, or if both are dead, to the children of each of them and the children of the deceased children of each of them, and one-half to the maternal grandparents or grandparent, or if both are dead to the children of each of them and the children of the deceased children of each of them. If both of the paternal grandparents or both of the maternal grandparents are dead leaving no child or grandchild to survive the decedent, the one-half which would have passed to them or to their children and grandchildren shall be added to the one-half passing to the grandparents or grandparent or to their children and grandchildren on the other side.
If no grandparent survives the decedent, then to the uncles and aunts and the children and grandchildren of deceased uncles and aunts of the decedent as provided by the Code.
If the deceased is survived by none of these people, then, and only then, does the intestate estate pass to the Commonwealth.