What happens if you die without leaving a will?


Date: 16 November 2012

What happens if you die without leaving a will?/Woody Allen"I'm not afraid of death - I just don't want to be there when it happens." It has to be one of Woody Allen's best one-liners. Death is something many of us prefer not to think about – or plan for. According to some estimates, as many as 35% of UK adults aged over 55 do not have a legally valid will. Those in younger age groups are much less inclined to have one (as many as 80% of 18-34 year olds).

More than a tenth of those who do not have a will believe their estate (AKA their property) will automatically go to the people they want it to go to were they to 'pop their clogs'. About a quarter plan to write a will when they get older, while some people are put off by associated cost and more than a tenth admit to never having considered writing a will.

If you 'kick the bucket' without leaving a legally valid will you are described as dying "intestate" and your estate must be shared out according to the rules of intestacy. If your will isn't legal, the rules of intestacy determine how your estate will be shared out - regardless of any wishes you might have expressed.

Under the rules of intestacy, spouses or civil partners inherit only if they are married or in a civil partnership at the time of death. Partners who are informally separated from the deceased can still inherit under intestacy rules.

Many famous people are reported to have died intestate. Legal battles over the estate of legendary guitarist Jimi Hendrix are reported to have lasted 30 years. Other famous musicians/singers include Michael Jackson, Bob Marley, Kurt Cobain, Sonny Bono and Barry White. Former US president Abraham Lincoln (who was assassinated in 1865, and, ironically, a lawyer by profession) died intestate, as reportedly did Pablo Picasso, eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes, Diana, Princess of Wales, Stieg Larsson (author of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and TV presenter Jill Dando.

Whether rich or not, famous or not, few things are more hurtful or undignified as the spectacle of relatives squabbling over an estate. And as viewers of BBC TV fly-on-the-wall series Heir Hunters will know, if there are no surviving relatives who can inherit under the rules of intestacy, the estate passes to the Crown, which is known as bona vacantia.

Interestingly, "Under constitutional law dating back to medieval times", in the past six years HRH The Prince of Wales (AKA the Duke of Cornwall) is reported to have received £1m from the estates of those who have died without wills in Cornwall (totalling £552,000 in 2012 alone). For the past 40 years, Prince Charles has opted to give the money to charity.

No matter how old or young you are, the message is clear. If you want to avoid creating any more heartache, hassle or expense for those you leave behind and ensure that your estate is distributed in accordance with your wishes, you must have an explicit, thorough, legally valid will drawn up. Seeking tailored legal advice is wise, especially where circumstances are more complicated than usual (eg if you have step children or own multiple properties). It's probably a good idea to seek inheritance tax advice, too.

Mark Williams is editor of the Start Up Donut.

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