Intestacy Rules: Dying 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.

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Mubina Pirmohamed
Insurance comparison expert
Last Updated
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, there are a wide variety of situations that could occur, which means the estate will be shared between family members, according to the rules of intestacy. These rules apply to England and Wales. Intestacy rules in Scotland differ.

Who inherits under the rules of intestacy?

If you die without a will, 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 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. Let’s take a look...

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 of the person who died – and the estate is valued at more than £270,000 – the partner inherits:

  • all the personal property and personal possessions of the person who has died
  • the first £270,000 of the estate (or, the whole estate if it’s worth less than £270,000)
  • half the remaining estate with the rest going to the deceased’s surviving parents

Children and grandchildren

The remainder of the estate goes to the deceased’s children or grandchildren with the following priority:

  • children – or, if there aren’t any, grandchildren – will get an equal share
  • if there aren’t any children or grandchildren, surviving parents of the deceased will get a share

Parents and siblings

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

If there are 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 children, grandchildren, parents or siblings, the spouse or civil partner will inherit the entire estate.

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
  • 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’re partners living together and aren’t married.

However, even 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, and 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, and includes who should take care of any minors who are 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 etc.

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 find out if there’s any inheritance tax to pay.

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