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What happens if a person dies without a will?

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Although the coronavirus pandemic has encouraged more people than ever make wills, we still regularly see cases of people dying without a valid will. What happens to their estate?

Intestacy Rules

Where somebody dies without a will, they are said to have died “intestate”. In England & Wales, the rules for what happens to “intestate” estates are governed by statue, specifically the Administration of Estates Act 1925.

The rules vary depending on whether the person who died was survived by a spouse or civil partner and whether they had any children. Common situations include the following:

  1. if the person who died had a spouse, but no children, then the spouse inherits everything;
  2. if the person had a spouse and children, then the spouse takes all personal effects (called “chattels”) and the first £270,000; the rest is split between the spouse (50%) and the children (50%);
  3. if the person only had children, but no spouse, then the children take equal shares of the estate;
  4. if the person had no spouse or children, the estate goes to their parents (if any) or else to their siblings.

There is a simple free-to-use tool online which can assist with identifying who will inheritand which can be found here.

Can you challenge intestacy rules?

We often get asked whether the intestacy rules can be challenged. The short answer is that, no, the intestacy rules are set out in the law and therefore cannot be challenged in the same way a will can be invalidated. For more on challenging wills, see here.

The longer answer is that there are several steps you can take if a person has died intestate. These will depend on the specific facts of your case and it is advisable to speak to a specialist solicitor. For example, possible claims might include:

  1. if the intestacy rules mean you are left in a position of financial hardship, you might qualify to bring a “reasonable financial provision” claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants Act) 1975. For more information on this see here;
  2. if the person who died had promised to give a piece of land, shares in a company, or other similar asset, you might have a claim for proprietary estoppel. For more on this see here;
  3. if the person who died owed you a debt, you can recover that debt from the person who is handling the estate (called the “personal representative”);
  4. you could agree with the persons who inherit according to the intestacy rules that they will sign a Deed of Variation giving you part of or all of their share in the estate.

If you would like to discuss whether you have any claims against an estate, please contact a member of our Contentious Private Client team or send an email to Nicholas Choiniere.

Disclaimer: Anything posted on this blog is for general information only and is not intended to provide legal advice on any general or specific matter. Please refer to our terms and conditions for further information. Please contact the author of the blog if you would like to discuss the issues raised.