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What you should know about heirs-at-law and intestate succession

If a person dies without an estate plan (at least a will), state probate laws determine which relatives inherit their estate, what portion of it and under what circumstances. These people are called "heirs-at-law."

These are also the people who would have "standing" to contest a will if there is one. That doesn't mean that they automatically have a right to any part of the estate if the deceased didn't include them. The only exception would be a spouse. In New York and all states except Georgia, current spouses can't be disowned.

State laws vary somewhat, but not much, in who is considered an heir-at-law and in what order they are entitled to a share of an estate ("intestate succession"). The state in which the deceased was residing when they passed away is the one whose laws apply. However, if the person owned property in another state, that state's laws might apply to that property.

In New York, as in most states, when there is no estate plan, spouses and then children come first in the line of succession. If a person living in New York leaves behind a spouse but no descendants (children, grandchildren and so on), the spouse inherits everything.

If the person had children, the spouse will get $50,000 automatically as well as half of the estate. The other half is divided equally among the descendants. However, descendants only get a portion of the estate if the generations ahead of them have already passed away.

If a person dies without a surviving spouse but with descendants, the descendants split the estate. If there is no surviving spouse or descendants, the estate is divided among siblings or their descendants.

If the deceased had no surviving family (or none can be located), the estate is "escheated" to the state.

Remember that all of these rules apply only if someone dies without a valid will or any type of estate plan. That's just one reason why it's important to have something in place. You want to be the one to determine who inherits your assets.

If you don't have a spouse or children, and your siblings have passed away, do you really want distant relatives whom you haven't seen in decades or never liked to inherit your money instead of a worthy charity? Whatever your wishes, an experienced attorney can help you detail them.

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