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What does it mean to die intestate?

Prior posts on this New Jersey estate planning and business law blog have discussed why it is important for people both young and old to have plans for the disposition of their assets after their deaths. However, not all individuals choose to create estate plans before the ends of their lives occur. When a person dies without a valid will, he is considered to have died intestate.

Intestacy laws dictate how a person's assets and wealth will pass when he does not establish such decisions during his lifetime. Generally, relatives that were closely related to the decedent will have a better chance of inheriting as heirs than individuals who were only distantly related to the deceased individual. For example, the child of an intestate decedent will likely inherit from his estate before the decedent's second cousin would do so.

Spouses generally inherit the bulk, if not all, of an intestate decedent's estate. If no spouse exists or is surviving at the time of the decedent's death, then the estate generally passes to the decedent's kids. From there, if no children are alive at the time the decedent passes, the estate will pass up to his parents and then down to his siblings, based on survivorship. Intestacy laws generally follow this up and down pattern of inheritance based on survivorship until a surviving relative is reached.

If a decedent has no surviving relatives, his estate can escheat or pass directly to the state in which he lives. To prevent that, many people make basic estate plans. To many people it is more palpable to have a distant relation or charitable cause benefit from one's death than it is to enrich a government.

The best way to avoid escheatment and intestacy is to create a sound estate plan. Attorneys who work in the estate planning and administration field can help interested parties begin the process of organizing their wealth. Readers of this blog may use the information contained therein as a starting point for understanding intestacy but should seek specific guidance for particular questions about dying intestate.

Source: FindLaw, "Understanding Intestacy: If You Die Without an Estate Plan," Accessed April 9, 2015

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