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What Happens If You Die Without a Will?

Writing a will isn't easy. Oftentimes, it's morbid. Many New Yorkers -- even millionaires -- put off facing mortality by never writing a will. So what happens if you die without a will?

When you leave the world without leaving a will behind, legally speaking you die "intestate."

The New York intestacy laws describe how your assets will be divided among your heirs. The goal is to make sure that your assets are distributed in the same way an average person would have wanted if he had written a will.

In New York, intestate assets are distributed as follows:

  • The surviving spouse, if there is one, will be entitled to the entire estate or a substantial part of the estate. The exact amount will depend on if the deceased had any descendents.
  • Descendents will get the entire estate if there is no spouse.
  • The deceased's parents will take the entire estate if the deceased had no spouse or descendents.
  • Other relatives will be given the estate if the deceased had no spouse, descendents, or surviving parents.

An intestate distribution can have negative consequences, including losing control of your estate's destiny. Your estate could be distributed in a way that goes against your wishes. For example, if there's no guidance and you have no heirs, your estate may escheat to New York state instead of a charity you care about. For obvious reasons, in such a situation, it'll be too late for you to do anything about it.

A separate problem is that intestate distributions are sudden and are often paid in large sums. In some cases, elderly parents who suddenly receive a distribution may be disqualified for Medicaid benefits. At the other end of the spectrum are children: It's almost always a bad idea for kids to receive a Scrooge McDuck-style pool of money with no structure.

Thinking about mortality isn't fun, but taking the time to plan an estate can make a world of difference to those you care about. To learn more, check out FindLaw's free Guide to Writing a Will.

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