Intestate Succession Rules

Written by john landers
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Intestate Succession Rules
Probate courts must follow state Intestate succession rules when dividing up the decedent's property. (Legal Law Justice image by Stacey Alexander from

Intestate succession rules are the legal guidelines probate courts implement for distributing the assets of a deceased person to his or her heirs. Intestate occurs when the decedent fails to leave a valid will. The state's probate court supervises the entire process. Intestate succession laws vary from state to state. People who would prefer that family, friends and other beneficiaries receive the assets of their estate should create a will or have a will made on their behalf.

State Laws

Most states base their intestate laws on the 1990 Uniform Probate Code. This code stipulates that close relatives receive the deceased's property rather than distant relatives. The code specifies close relatives as the surviving spouse, children and grandchildren. The code considers adoptive children the same as genetic offspring.

Generally, when a decedent leaves a valid will, called "testate," the probate court names an executor for the estate. The executor manages the estate until the division of the assets according to the deceased's wishes. When a decedent does not leave behind a will, state statutes outline a list of individuals who may serve as executor. Typically, the probate court chooses a surviving spouse or a recognised cohabiter. Adult children and other relatives follow next in line.


The probate court appoints an executor for the estate. This person takes possession of the decedent's property and immediately creates a formal inventory of the assets and personal property--which may include stocks, bonds, real estate, bank accounts, artwork, vehicles and household furnishings. The executor must have the assets appraised to determine the fair market value. The individual must also pay the obligations and costs of the estate.

After the payment of all debts, the remaining assets go to the beneficiaries. The executor must formally notify creditors and heirs. The executor needs to obtain an employer identification number for filing the state and federal taxes, including death taxes. The executor final duties consist of divvying up the remaining estate according to the state's intestate laws.


Most state statutes permit spouses and blood relatives as beneficiaries under intestate succession regulations. Some jurisdictions accept registered cohabiters as beneficiaries. Unmarried partners, friends and charitable entities do not qualify under most intestate laws.

The decedent's surviving spouse usually receives the bulk of the estate. If the deceased does not have children, the surviving spouse gets all of the assets. When a decedent dies without a surviving spouse or children, the assets go to relatives according to the list outlined in state regulations. When the state cannot identify any relatives, the state receives the property.

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