If someone dies without a will, you might be left wondering what to do. Who should inherit their money? And how much should each person get? In the UK, there are clear rules about what should happen. We’ll go through what this means and how things work, so you know how to deal with the situation if you have to.
What’s the legal term for dying without a will?
The legal term for dying without a will is ‘dying intestate’. The person who has died without a will is called an ‘intestate person,’ or someone who ‘died intestate.’
What happens if a person dies intestate?
The law decides what happens to the intestate person’s estate, which is the total value of their property, assets and belongings. The ‘rules of intestacy’ are followed for sharing out the estate.
The rules of intestacy also apply if someone does make a will, but it’s not seen as valid in the eyes of the law.
Who can inherit if there’s no will?
Only certain people can inherit when a person dies intestate. In England and Wales, there’s an order that the rules of intestacy follows when working out who gets what. We’ll cover the order in the rest of this article. If the person lived in Scotland or Northern Ireland, the rules are slightly different.
Married partners and civil partners
Married partners and civil partners are first in line to inherit from the intestate person’s estate. If married partners have divorced or if a civil partnership has been legally ended, then there’s no right to inherit under the rules of intestacy.
If a couple lived together and one person dies without a will, the other person can’t automatically inherit under the rules of intestacy either.
How much will a married partner or civil partner inherit?
This will depend on whether the person who died has any living children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren. The total value of the estate will also be important here too.
If the estate is worth more than £270,000
If the person who has died has any living children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren and the estate is worth more than £270,000, the surviving partner inherits all of the below things:
- All of the personal property and belongings of the person who has died
- The first £270,000 of the estate
- Half of the leftover estate
If the person who died doesn’t have any living children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren, the surviving partner inherits the below things:
- All of the personal property and belongings of the person who has died
- The full estate plus interest from the date of death
If the estate is worth less than £270,000
The surviving married partner or civil partner will inherit everything if the estate is worth less than £270,000. It doesn’t matter if there are any children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren.
What about joint bank accounts?
If there are any joint bank accounts and a married or civil partner dies without a will, the surviving partner inherits all of the money. This also applies to building society accounts.
What about jointly owned property?
If you own a home with the person who has died, how much you inherit will depend on the type of tenancy you have.
Jointly owned property where there’s a beneficial joint tenancy
A ‘beneficial joint tenancy’ is a legal term for one of the two ways people can own their home together. The couple would be called ‘joint tenants’ if this is the case.
If the surviving partner is a joint tenant at the time the person who dies passes away, they will inherit the other person’s share of the property automatically.
Jointly-owned property where there’s a tenancy in common
A ‘tenancy in common’ is another legal term for the second of the two ways people can own their home together. The couple would be called ‘tenants in common’ if this is the case.
If the surviving partner is a tenant in common at the time the person who dies passes away, they will not automatically inherit the other person’s share of the property.
You can find more information about the two different types of joint home ownership on The Citizens Advice website under ‘Buying with someone else.’
Jointly-owned property and joint bank accounts aren’t included in the estate
It’s important to know that any property or money that’s inherited by the surviving partner doesn’t count as part of the estate when it comes to the estate being valued for the rules of intestacy.
Children are next in line to inherit under the rules of intestacy. However, this is only the case if there’s no surviving married or civil partner. If there is, they’ll only inherit something if the estate is worth more than £270,000.
If there’s no surviving married or civil partner, the child or children will inherit all of the estate. If there’s more than one child, the estate is split equally between each one.
What if the person who died has children from different relationships?
All the person’s children will inherit an equal share of the estate, even if they’re from different relationships.
What about adopted children?
If the person who died intestate has adopted children or adopted step-children, the children can inherit under the rules of intestacy. They’ll receive an equal share of the estate in the same way as biological children do.
When can children receive their inheritance?
Children can receive their inheritance once they’re 18. If they get married or form a civil partnership before they’re 18, they can receive their inheritance then.
Trustees look after inheritance on behalf of children until either of the above things happen.
Who else can inherit under the rules of intestacy?
After surviving married or civil partners and children, the order of who can potentially inherit is as follows:
- Grandchildren and great-grandchildren
- Other close relatives including parents, brothers and sisters, nephews and nieces
- Other relatives including grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, half-aunts, half-uncles and half-cousins
The way it works is that the inheritance will fall to each tier of relative and will be shared out equally between the surviving family members in that tier. If there are none, it will fall to the next tier.
What if there are no surviving relatives?
If a person dies intestate and there are no surviving relatives, the whole estate will pass to the Crown (the state). The legal term for this is ‘bona vacantia.’ Her Majesty’s Treasury (HM Treasury) then has responsibility for sorting out the estate.
Who can’t inherit under the rules of intestacy?
Some people don’t have any automatic legal right to inherit from the estate of a person who died intestate. These are:
- Unmarried partners
- Partners who aren’t in a civil partnership
- Relations by marriage (brothers and sisters-in-law)
Although these people don’t have an automatic right in law to inherit, they can still apply to the court to see if they can access any money from the estate. It’s a good idea to get help from a solicitor to do this.
What if family members aren’t happy with how the inheritance has been shared out?
A deed of family arrangement or variation can be made if family members aren’t happy with how the estate has been shared out when a person dies intestate.
Everyone who is set to benefit from an inheritance has to agree to this for it to happen. Also, it has to be sorted out within two years of the person dying. Again, it’s a good idea to get help from a solicitor to do this.
Learn more about writing a will
If you want to make sure the right people inherit your estate, it’s a good idea to think about writing a will. Our article on 5 Reasons to Write a Will is a helpful guide to why it’s important.