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Intestacy rules: what happens if you die without a will?

Our guide outlines the main rules of inheritance if you die without making a will.

Our guide outlines the main rules of inheritance if you die without making a will.

Written by
Tim Knighton
Life, health and income protection insurance expert
Last Updated
25 JUNE 2024
4 min read
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What happens if you die without a will?

If you die without leaving a legally binding will it’s known as dying ‘intestate’. In this situation, the most likely result will be that the estate will be left to their surviving partner: a spouse or civil partner. If there’s no surviving partner, the estate will then pass to any children of the person who has died.

However, a wide variety of situations could occur that means the estate may be shared between family members, according to the rules of intestacy. These rules apply to England and Wales. Intestacy rules in Scotland differ.

Did you know?

According to a 2023 report by the National Will Register, only 44% of UK adults have made a will. The report also reveals that 42% of respondents have not spoken to anyone about what should happen to their estate on their death.

If you want to decide who your possessions should go to when you die, you’ll need a will. Without one, the courts will decide who inherits. This is especially important if you and your partner are unmarried. Contrary to popular belief, ‘common law marriage’ doesn’t legally exist. If you’re a cohabiting couple, your partner has no automatic right to inherit if you die.

What are the rules of intestacy?

If you die without leaving a valid will, your property (estate) must be shared out according to certain rules. These are called the rules of intestacy.

Under these rules, the way your estate will be distributed depends on whether you’re married or in a civil partnership, and which of your relatives are still alive when you die.

Who inherits under the rules of intestacy?

The only people who can automatically inherit under the rules of intestacy are married or civil partners, along with some close relatives, such as children, grandchildren or siblings. Other loved ones, like unmarried partners, friends or extended family, won’t inherit any of the deceased’s estate.

Under the rules of intestacy, there’s essentially an order of priority:

Married partners and civil partners

Married partners and civil partners will only inherit an estate if they were married or in a civil partnership at the time of their partner’s death.

If there are surviving children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren – and the estate is valued at more than the ‘statutory legacy’, which is set at £322,000 for deaths on or after 26 July 2023 – the partner inherits:

  • All the personal property and personal possessions of the person who has died
  • The first £322,000 of the estate (or the whole estate if it’s worth less than £322,000)
  • Half the remaining estate, with the rest going to the deceased’s surviving children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren as below.

Children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren

The remainder of the estate goes to the deceased’s children. If any of the children died before the deceased, their own children will inherit in their place. If any of these grandchildren died before the deceased, their children will inherit in their place.

For example: at the time of her death, Molly was married to John. They had no children and she didn’t leave a will. Molly’s estate is valued at £400,000. Under the rules of intestacy, John inherits her entire estate, with interest, from the date of his wife’s death.

But let’s say Molly and John had a daughter Alice. In this case, John inherits £322,000 from Molly’s estate and half of the remaining £78,000 (£39,000). The other half will go to Alice.

Parents and siblings

If the deceased had no surviving spouse or civil partner, children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren, the parents will inherit the estate.

If there are no surviving parents, any brothers and sisters of the deceased will get a share (or their nieces and nephews will if the siblings died before the deceased did).

If there’s nobody else to inherit

If the deceased has no surviving children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren, the spouse or civil partner will inherit the entire estate.

Using this government guide, you can put in your own specific circumstances to find out who inherits under intestacy.

Who can’t inherit under the rules of intestacy?

Typically, those who can’t inherit when there’s no legally binding will are:

  • Unmarried partners
  • Partners not in a civil partnership
  • Relatives by marriage
  • Friends or carers.

In short, you can’t inherit under the rules of intestacy if you’re divorced, your civil partnership has ended or you were partners living together unmarried.

If you can’t inherit under the rules of intestacy, you may be able to apply to a court for financial help from the estate.

What happens to an estate if there are no surviving relatives?

If a person dies without any living relatives and there’s no will, their estate will go to the Crown. This is known as bona vacantia (meaning ‘ownerless goods’). The Treasury Solicitor is then responsible for dealing with the estate. Find out more about bona vacantia on the GOV.UK website.

Can the way a property is shared under intestacy rules be challenged?

There are times when you can challenge how a property is shared when someone dies without leaving a will. The process is called making a deed of family arrangement or variation. This needs to be done within two years of the death.

Frequently asked questions

What is a will?

A will is a legal document setting out how you pass on your assets when you die. It includes who should take care of any minors under the age of 18. If there’s no valid will in place when you die, your inheritance might not go where you want it to.

Who’s in charge of your estate?

Your will names the person (or people) in charge of your estate when you die, known as the executors. Your estate is the total of any money, property and possessions you have when you pass away.

It’s the executors’ job to make sure any expenses – such as funeral costs or outstanding debts – are paid first. After this, the remaining assets from your estate can go to the beneficiaries named in your will.

What is probate?

Probate is the legal right to deal with someone’s estate when they’re dead. To find out if you need to apply for probate, contact the financial organisations who hold the deceased’s assets, like their mortgage and bank accounts, for example.

If there is a will, the named executors can apply for probate. If there isn’t a will, the closest living relative can apply.

Before you apply for probate, you need an estimate of the estate’s value and to find out if there’s any inheritance tax to pay.

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