When you die without leaving a will, the law decides who gets what and how much. It doesn’t matter what your relationship with those people was like when you were alive.
By leaving a will that says clearly who should get your property and money when you die, you can prevent unnecessary distress at an already difficult time for your family or friends.
Some parents have had to sue their own children to get a share of their partner’s estate when their unmarried partner dies. The law says that in this situation the children get everything.
Don’t let this happen to you. When one of two brothers died suddenly, his whole estate automatically went to their father, who had left them 40 years earlier and hadn’t been in contact since. His brother, who he was close to, got nothing.
What is ‘intestacy’?
Money fitness tip
Make sure your wishes are known by making a will, otherwise the law will decide who gets what.
Dying without a will is called intestacy or dying intestate.
The law about exactly who gets what is different in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, but there are some common problems wherever you live.
Common rules if you don’t make a will
- If you’re not married and not in a civil partnership, your partner is not legally entitled to anything when you die.
- If you’re married, your husband or wife may inherit most or all of your estate and your children may not get anything (except in Scotland). This is true even if you are separated but not if you're divorced.
- If you have children or grandchildren, how much they are legally entitled to will depend on where you live in the UK – but if you make a will you can decide this yourself.
- Any Inheritance Tax that your estate has to pay may be higher than it would be if you had made a will.
- If you die with no living close relatives, your whole estate will belong to the Crown or to the government. This law is called bona vacantia.
NB: any assets that you own jointly with someone will not pass under the intestacy rules but will pass by survivorship to the surviving joint owner. But be careful, you need to own the asset as “joint tenants” and not as “tenants in common” for survivorship to apply.
Who will inherit if you die without a will?
You can find out exactly who will inherit your property if you die without a will by using the online calculator on the Gov.uk website (see below). This covers variations in the rules for England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
The calculator uses some legal terms that may be unfamiliar, so here’s a quick guide to what they mean:
- Remoter issue – grandchildren, great-grandchildren and so on: your direct descendants in later generations than your children.
- Per stirpes – Latin for ‘by branch’. This means that each branch of the family gets an equal share of your estate. For example, if you had three children, each of them would get a third of the total. But if one of your three children died before you, that child's children would share their parent’s third of the estate between them.
- Chattels – things you own, like furniture, jewellery, cars or books.
Did you know? Total money and property that went to the government last year because people didn’t leave a will was £8 million.
Use the calculator of the Gov.uk website to work out who will inherit your possessions.
Make a start on your will today
Making a will is easier than you may think – see Writing a will – your options.