A legal guide to what happens if you die without a will


Dying intestate 

If you die without leaving a will, it’s known as dying intestate. It means your estate will be shared out according to the rules of intestacy. The rules also apply if you leave an invalid will. 

The rules of intestacy may not match your wishes. For example, a surviving partner who wasn’t married or in a civil partnership with the deceased has no automatic right to inherit.

Failing to leave a will won’t completely nullify their right to your estate, but their ability to benefit will rely completely on those who, according to the inheritance and trustees power act of 2014, are to be left responsible for your assets.  

The rules of intestacy – Who inherits when there is no will? 

But who are those people? According to the laws of intestacy, there are different family members who will become the benefactors of your estate, depending on your circumstances. 

The following is a breakdown of who you can expect your estate to go to in accordance with intestacy laws:

  • Married or in a civil partnership, and does have children

    This is the simplest outcome for anyone who dies without leaving a will.  Your spouse will receive up to £250,000 of everything in your estate. This includes all personal possessions. Anything which is above this amount will be split in half. The first 50% of the remaining estate will also be given to the spouse. The remaining 50% will be given to all children (once they reach age 18) in equal shares.

  • Married or in a civil partnership, and does NOT have children

    In this instance, the same rules apply as for those married with kids. The only exception being that 100% of the estate goes to your spouse. 

  • Unmarried, and has children or grandchildren

    Your estate will be divided equally according to the number of children you have. Each portion will then be given to a child once they reach the age of 18.  If your children are deceased, their percentage of the inheritance will be passed on to your grandchildren, or even great-grandchildren. This will be divided once again according to how many kids they have.  Thankfully for those who have legally adopted children, the laws of intestacy treat them equally to biological children.

  • Unmarried with no children

    If this is the case, there is an order of inheritance priority. That being:

    1. Your parents 
    2. Full siblings 
    3. Half siblings 
    4. Grandparents 
    5. Uncles, aunts and cousins 
  • Unmarried with no living relatives

    In the event that someone dies without any living relatives left to inherit their estate, it goes to the crown. That means it’s held by the British government.

Unclaimed estates sit in limbo for up to 30 years. This gives estranged relatives a long window to claim their inheritance. The Government allows you to search for estates and make a claim if you feel you’re owed something.  With over 8,000 unclaimed estates currently on the list (averaging around £150,000 each), there’s over a billion pounds worth of inheritance which the government is holding onto.

If you have a partner who you’ve spent most of your life with, but aren’t legally tied to, there is a chance they could inherit nothing. This will be dependent on the generosity of the dependents who do benefit from your estate. 

How does probate work when there is no will?

Probate is the term given to the administration of someone’s estate. As we’ve discussed, the rules of intestacy lay out who is to inherit what. The role of the administrator is to ensure money and assets go to the right people. 

Anyone who was close to the deceased (even those with no family ties) can apply to become the administrator of an estate. They’ll just need to apply for a grant of ‘letters of administration’ in order to be given probate. 

From here, they have two options for how to manage an estate:

Do it themselves

While this is undoubtedly the cheaper option, it places a lot of pressure on the person who’s been tasked with the administrative responsibilities. 

An individual who takes on this role will have to:

  • Apply for a grant of probate
  • Value the estate (including jointly-owned assets)
  • Work out the level of inheritance tax 
  • Pay inheritance tax
  • Pay debts and other taxes of the deceased
  • Distribute the estate in accordance with the laws of intestacy 

This can be a confusing and stressful process for anyone who doesn’t have a background in finance or law. It’s for that reason a lot of people turn to professionals for help. 

Hire a solicitor or probate specialist

Hiring a specialist will make things considerably easier, while also speeding up the process greatly. 

This is often the preferred route for those left behind. As well as professional efficiency, It can be incredibly useful if there are delicate or complicated family matters to have a neutral party in charge.

Common reasons to turn to a specialist include:

  • If the value of the estate is over the inheritance tax threshold 
  • The estate has confusing legal arrangements, such as assets held in a trust
  • The estate is insolvent (bankrupt) 
  • The estate includes foreign assets or property 
  • The deceased resided outside of the UK
  • The estate is complicated to administer without the presence of a will 

Ultimately, the choice comes down to whether you’d prefer the peace of mind and legal safety, or saving money on solicitor fees. 

What happens to your bank account and other finances? 

Your bank accounts are most likely where your money will be pooled from to be distributed to your estate. A number of actions will be taken to ensure your money is kept safe following your death. 

  • Current and savings accounts

    Once the bank is informed of the death and an individual has been granted probate, all direct debits and payments from an account will be closed. Any money left in the account will be held until the administrator of the probate is able to distribute it to the appropriate parties.

  • Pensions

    Contact will be made with the Pension Service to stop any state pension payments you might have been receiving before you died. If you have a workplace pension, this might also be accessible for your inheritors (depending on your specific scheme). 

  • Trusts

    If your account is held in a lifetime trust, the successor trustee you’ve named should present a certificate of the trust and your death to the bank. At this point, they should be able to take it over. 

  • Insurance

    A claim can be made on any life insurance. All other policies will be cancelled once your administrator of probate has a death certificate. 

  • Debts

    All debts will be paid off by your remaining assets, and not passed on to any of your inheritors. This does however mean if you’re in a great deal of debt, very little inheritance might be accessible to your family. 

How to find out if someone left a will 

It might not always be obvious whether or not a will was left behind by the deceased. As such, there are a number of ways you can check to see if one exists. They include:

  • Search the house

    It might sound a little basic, but this is actually a fantastic place to begin your search. Many people keep a copy of their will in a safespace at home. Just make sure to ask for permission to look through a house first if you’re not a close relative. 

  • Ask their solicitor

    If the deceased had a known solicitor, make contact with them. They should have a copy of the will stored away. You will need to show them a death certificate, as well as proof of your own identification. 

  • Ask their bank

    Banks sometimes store wills on behalf of their customers. Again, you’ll need to show them a death certificate, as well as proving who you are and your relationship to the deceased. 

  • Conduct a professional will search

    Some companies are set up with the specific intent of hunting down missing wills. They’ll employ a lot of the methods we’ve already mentioned, as well as looking through national databases. 

If these methods fail to find a will, the rules of intestacy will come into effect. 

Dying without a will isn’t disastrous, but it can cause unnecessary complications for those left behind. It will also mean the people you want to benefit from your estate may miss out. 

Don’t run the risk. Make sure to get your will in order, even if you’re in perfect health. It’s the ones you love who’ll lose out most if you don’t.