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Who inherits if someone dies without a Will?
Your estate is the collective word for the money, property, and possessions you own when you die. If you leave a well-drafted Will, its terms set out your wishes for what should happen to the whole of your estate. But who inherits if someone dies without a Will, known as dying intestate?
In that case, fixed, statutory rules known as the intestacy rules determine what happens to your estate. These rules also apply if your Will does not deal with your entire estate, known as dying partially intestate. In that case, the intestacy rules determine what happens to assets not otherwise dealt with by your Will.
How do the intestacy rules work?
The key issues determining what happens to your estate if you die intestate are:
- whether or not you are married or in a civil partnership;
- whether you have any children (includes adopted children but not step-children), grandchildren or other direct descendants; and
- the value of your estate.
It’s crucial to note that cohabitees have no automatic inheritance rights – the idea of a common law spouse in an entire legal fiction.
Also, remember that jointly owned property, such as a house or a bank account, automatically passes to the surviving joint owner or owners. That’s irrespective of what the Will or the intestacy rules say.
And in a recent change, if the deceased died on or after 26 July 2023, the spouse’s statutory legacy (see below) increased to £322,000. The figure for deaths between 6 February 2020 and 25 July 2023 is £270,000.
The intestacy rules are complex and change relatively frequently. But let’s take some examples:
The deceased, married with two children, died on 1 August 2023.
In this scenario, the surviving spouse receives the deceased’s chattels (personal possessions), whatever their value. In addition, they receive either a statutory legacy of £322,000 or the entire estate if its value is no more than £322,000.
The surviving spouse receives half of the remainder if the estate is more than £322,000, with the other half split equally between the children.
The deceased died on 1 August 2023. They were unmarried but cohabited with their partner for many years. In addition, they had two children from a previous relationship.
In this scenario, the surviving partner receives nothing, and the entire estate passes equally to the deceased’s children.
What if there is no spouse or children?
Where the deceased had no surviving spouse, civil partner or children, the intestacy rules set out other relatives entitled to inherit and in what order. Ultimately, the estate passes to the Crown if there are no qualifying relatives. In practice, the Exchequer receives the proceeds.
The Government’s website has a useful, easy-to-follow tool to help determine who is entitled to inherit on intestacy.
Inheritance Act claims
The Inheritance (Provisions and Dependants) Act 1975 gives the Court limited powers to interfere with the effect of a Will or the intestacy rules. That can only happen where it’s judged the deceased has failed to make reasonable financial provision for one or more people in a category defined by the Act.
Such applicants must demonstrate that the provision made for them (which might be no provision) is unreasonable. If successful, the Court can only order such financial provision from the deceased’s estate as is reasonably necessary for the applicant’s maintenance. This means the applicant should be able to live ‘at neither a luxurious nor poverty-stricken level’.
For intestate estates, unmarried partners are among those who commonly bring Inheritance Acy claims.