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Intestacy: If You Die Without a Will, What Happens?

Posted by Daniel J. Eccher, Esq. | Aug 18, 2023

If you die without a will, you might believe your money or your property will go directly to your surviving next of kin. But that doesn't always happen. If your assets must pass through probate first, the process could delay the inheritance and cause stress for your loved ones. Preparing a will before you die makes it more likely that your assets will be distributed according to your wishes. 

Dying without a will is called dying “intestate.” Depending on where you live, state law will determine who inherits your property, in a process known as "intestate succession." 

Intestacy laws vary by state. These laws determine who may serve as the personal representative of the estate and who may receive its property. In Maine, the property of a resident who dies without a will is distributed under the rules of the state probate code

If You Leave Heirs: Intestate Property Distribution Explained

Some states require intestate heirs to survive the deceased for a certain time before they qualify for an inheritance. In Maine, this survival period is 120 hours (five days). If any of your next-of-kin passes away before then, they will be deemed to have died before you.

Depending on your situation, not everyone who is entitled to the inheritance will receive it equally. 

Maine intestacy laws stress certain family relationships over others. The rules for spouses also apply to registered domestic partners. After any debt settlement, parts of the estate are granted to your surviving spouse/partner, parents, or descendants. 

If you leave surviving minor or adult children, your spouse or partner will get a share of your estate. If you leave no living parents or descendants, your spouse/partner will inherit all of your intestate property. With surviving parents, your spouse/partner will inherit the first $300,000 of the property, then three-quarters of the balance. 

Special Considerations: Blended Families, Older Couples, and Dependents

Ideally, your wishes will align with state probate laws. But if you don't name heirs through a will or a beneficiary designation, these are potential outcomes for different situations.

Stepparents and divorcees: If you're a stepparent or have divorced or remarried, having a will (and if applicable, a trust) is essential. Some parents of stepchildren want to treat them as equally as any of their own children. In Maine. your surviving spouse/partner and descendants from that union will split your estate 50/50. Depending on your blended family dynamics, your property might not go to whom you want. 

Older people and dependents with special needs: Seniors or parents of adult children who need care should consider the potential for long-term care. A contingent special needs trust can preserve Medicare eligibility for a surviving spouse or other disabled heir, reducing the possible financial burden of an outright inheritance. 

Adopted children and children born out of wedlock: The probate laws surrounding them may be complex. It can be better to prepare a will rather than rely on state laws to decide the outcome.

Guardianship of minor children or conservatorship for adults: Without a will, a judge will appoint a temporary guardian until they gather enough information about the situation to make a decision. They might name someone whom you wouldn't have chosen. If you're the parent of young children or of an adult child with special needs who needs care, having a will is crucial. 

Property Distribution in Maine If You Lack Heirs

If you die in Maine without a will or any surviving relatives, the state will receive your property.

Why Having a Will Ties Up Loose Ends

As you can see, if you die without a will, your final affairs might not be settled the way you wish. Your assets could pass to someone you wouldn't want to receive them, possibly causing conflicts and contested decisions. People you wouldn't have chosen to be responsible for your children could seek guardianship or conservatorship of them. 

If your estate must go through probate in Maine (or elsewhere), it creates potential extra duties and costs for those you love. Leaving a clear and legally valid estate plan may ease and simplify the administration process. 

Do you need help making a will—even a simple one? Do you have questions about how to protect your heirs and assets? We would be happy to clarify estate planning for you. Contact us online or call us today: (207) 377-6966. 

About the Author

Daniel J. Eccher, Esq.

Daniel J. Eccher, Esq. is the Managing Shareholder at Levey, Wagley, Putman & Eccher, P.A., in Winthrop, Maine. Dan's favorite problem to solve is helping clients figure out how to afford long-term care while having something left for their family.

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