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What Happens if You Die Without a Will in Washington?

When you make a legally binding will and testament, you decide who gets your money, real property, and other assets after you die. But what happens if you die without a will in Washington? By law, the state decides who gets your assets through what is called “intestate succession.”  Thus, when you die without a will, you are deemed to have “died intestate.” Under Washington State intestate law, if you die without a will, your assets will go to your relatives, starting with those who are the closest surviving.

Not All Assets Are Affected by Intestate Laws

It’s important to point out, though, that some important assets may not be affected by intestate succession if you die without a will in Washington. These include assets for which you have named beneficiaries or assets that you co-own with someone else who is still living. These non-probate assets will go to named beneficiaries or surviving co-owners whether you have a will in place or not.

The following types of assets are not subject to intestate succession:

  • Items transferred to a living trust
  • Life insurance proceeds with a named beneficiary
  • Funds in an IRA, 401(k) or other retirement accounts
  • Payable-on-death bank accounts
  • Property owned with someone else in a joint tenancy
  • Securities held in a transfer-on–death account.

Conceptually, if something is governed by a document, like a will, instrument designation, or a trust, then it’s not controlled by intestate concession laws.

If Someone Dies Without a Will, Who Gets What?

In Washington State, intestate distribution depends heavily on the decedent’s family status. If you die intestate, your intestate distribution will depend on whether you are married or single and have children, parents or siblings. Every distribution situation is unique, based upon your surviving family and the kinds of assets you have. To discuss your own specific situation or the asset distribution of a deceased loved one, contact a Washington State probate attorney for help. An experienced probate attorney can more accurately answer your questions and advise you about your specific situation.

Read on for some general concerns people have about how their assets may be distributed if they die without a will when they are …

  • Single
  • Married
  • In a domestic partnership
  • Living with someone as an unmarried partner
  • Without relatives.

What Happens if You Die Without a Will in Washington and You’re Single?

If you are single and die without a will and have children, your children will inherit everything. If you don’t have children, your parents will inherit all of your assets. When you don’t have parents or children, your siblings will inherit.

What Happens if You Die Without a Will in Washington State When You’re Married?

If you die intestate in Washington leaving a spouse but no children, parents or siblings, your spouse will inherit everything. However, if you die leaving a spouse and children, the spouse will inherit all your community property and one-half of your separate property. Your children will inherit the other half of your separate property.

When you don’t have children, but your parents are living, your spouse will inherit all of your community property and three-quarters of separate property, while your parents receive the other one-quarter of separate property. If you have siblings but no children or parents, the sibling will also inherit one-quarter of your separate property with everything else going to your spouse.

(Community property is property acquired while you were married, and separate property is the property you acquired through inheritance and/or before marriage.)

What Happens if I Die Without a Will and I’m Living With Someone As An Unmarried Couple?

If you die without a will in Washington State and are living with someone as a couple but are not married or in a legally recognized domestic partnership, your loved one, unfortunately, is not entitled to any of your estate. With a will in place, you could have specified assets to go to your loved one, but when the state distributes the inheritance, assets will only go to qualifying relatives.

What Happens if I Die Intestate and Don’t Have Any Surviving Family?

If absolutely no relatives can be located, your assets will go to the state if you die without a will. The state will seek to find any relative to inherit your estate. If you have no spouse, children, parents or siblings (which can include half-siblings, which are brothers or sisters that you only share one parent with) the state will look for children of siblings, grandparents, grandchildren, aunts and uncles or cousins to inherit your assets.

How Assets are Divided Between Minor Children

With respect to the size and eligibility of your children’s inheritance under Washington’s intestate laws, several issues should be considered. First, the size of each child’s share depends on how many children you have. Secondly, for children to be eligible to inherit from you under the laws of intestacy, the State of Washington must consider them to be your children, legally. Those issues generally arise with respect to adopted children, foster children, and stepchildren, children placed for adoption, posthumous children, and children born outside of marriage, to name a few.

Instances in Which Children May Not Automatically Receive a Share of Assets

Children who have been legally adopted will receive an intestate share, just as biological children. However, foster children and stepchildren who have not been legally adopted will not automatically receive a share. Children who have been placed for adoption and who have been legally adopted by another family will also not automatically receive a share from a deceased biological parent. Children who were conceived by you, but not born before your death, will receive a share under Washington ‘s intestate laws. Children who were born outside of marriage will not receive an automatic share. For example, if a father was not married or in “a registered domestic partnership” with the children’ s mother when she gave birth to them, the child or children may receive a share only if the father‘s paternity is established under Washington law.

Other Considerations When You Die Without a Will in Washington

In addition to describing how you want your assets divided after your death, a valid will also allows you to provide instructions on things like who will manage distribution of your estate and who will be appointed to guardianships of your minor children, if applicable. When you die without a will, the state will make these decisions for you.

If I Die Without a Will Does my Estate Still Go Through Probate?

Probate is the process through which the court oversees how a person’s assets are distributed to their heirs after they die. If you die with a will, the person you appointed in your will to handle your estate, called the personal representative, will administer your estate through the probate process. Assets that are in a living trust, that you have named beneficiaries for, or that you own jointly do not go through probate. You can learn more about the basics of probate law here. If you didn’t have a will, so died intestate, the probate court will appoint an executor to oversee distribution of your assets to your next of kin.

Intestate Laws Can Be Very Complicated

As you can see, intestate laws in Washington State can be complicated, especially in regard to non-traditional families. For this reason, it is wise to draft a will to better control where your assets go after your death. There could be people who are qualifying family members that you don’t wish to receive any of your estate, but they might receive a portion of your property if you die without a will. When you have a will in place to distribute your assets, it ensures that the people or organizations that you want to receive your assets will receive them. Having a will that clearly shows your wishes can also help avoid potential conflict among family members upon your death.

When you are reading about wills and planning for after your death, you might come across the legal term “testate”. What is the difference between testate and intestate?As discussed above, intestate is when you die without a will. Testate is the opposite. If you die testate, you die with a valid will in place.

Contact a Skilled Washington State Probate Attorney for Help

You’ve learned what happens when you die without a will in Washington State and can see that it is always better to die with a will in place. Even though the state process of distributing a deceased person’s assets intestate can be straightforward, it isn’t always. Depending upon your family situation and assets, it can become quite complicated and, as stated previously, who gets your property may very well not be the person you would have chosen had you planned ahead.

An experienced probate attorney who understands Washington State inheritance law can help you put plans in place to control who gets your assets after you die. Don’t let the state make those decisions for you. If you have concerns about the asset distribution of a loved one who has died, we can help answer your questions. Contact our probate attorneys today for a consultation.