What happens if I die without a will?

Your Guide to State, Local, Federal, Estate + International Taxation

In Season 6, Episode 5 of Parks and Recreation, Ben Wyatt tells Ron Swanson “If you die and you don’t have a real will, most of what you own will go to the government”. While in certain cases there is a sliver of truth to that statement, in Ron’s situation it would not apply. Now in Parks & Rec, though Ben Wyatt is an accountant, he is a state auditor so we can forgive his lack of knowledge on the subject, but this is a very common misconception. In fact, just this week a friend of mine told me that her parents thought their assets would go to the state unless they had a will, prompting me to write this blog.

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If you die without a valid will, it means you have died “intestate”. When you die intestate, what happens next is decided by your home state intestacy laws. These laws can vary depending on whether you are married, have children, have living family, etc., but your estate will not go to the government as long as you have living relatives. These laws are typically designed to make sure your property goes to anyone even remotely related to you before being forfeit to the state.

In this episode of Parks & Rec, Ron was married and had two stepdaughters. Under Arizona intestacy laws, Ron’s wife would have inherited his entire estate. In Indiana, where the show takes place, his wife would have inherited his entire estate – unless Ron had legally adopted the stepdaughters, in which case his wife would get half and the stepdaughters would receive half.

Though the state intestacy laws can still get your estate to those you love, it is not a replacement for proper estate planning. Without a proper will and other forms of estate planning, you cannot control how much of your assets go to various beneficiaries or leave assets to non-related beneficiaries such as friends and charities. Be sure to check with an attorney to see how your state’s laws would affect you.

Questions regarding estate, gift, or trust taxation? Contact your Henry+Horne professional today!

Haley Braun, CPA