What happens to your Estate if you die without a will?

by Molly Black, Director of Legal Services

If a Michigan resident dies without a will, otherwise known as dying intestate, the intestacy laws under the Estates and Protected Individuals Code (“EPIC”) dictate who will inherit the property of the decedent. This provides for an inflexible pattern of distribution which may not distribute your assets according to your wishes. The highest priority is given to their surviving spouse, followed by their descendants (children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren), parents, and siblings. The amount that a spouse will inherit depends on several factors, including whether or not it was a blended family.

Any jointly-owned property or accounts with named beneficiaries (commonly, life insurance policies and retirement accounts) will pass directly to the co-owner or beneficiary without going through the probate process.

There is also the question of who will administer the estate. A properly executed Will designates a Personal Representative to carry out your wishes after death. Without a Will, the probate court will appoint someone to administer the estate.

What problems could arise if you die without an estate plan?

The first problem your family could face after your death is determining who will make funeral arrangements. Without a legal document in place that appoints a funeral representative, a Michigan statute will dictate who has the authority to make decisions surrounding the funeral. This includes making decisions about burial vs. cremation, funeral location, and cemetery arrangements.

Secondly, without a Will, there is no guarantee that your property will pass to your intended recipients. Death doesn’t bring out the best in people and when money is involved, things can get ugly. This is especially true in blended families when your biological children and stepchildren don’t get along. You might have a better relationship with your stepchildren, but without a Will, they will not be treated as your own. This can also be devastating to unmarried couples. Intestacy laws only recognize your legal and blood relatives, so an unmarried partner will not inherit their deceased partner’s property if they die without a Will.

In addition to the disposition of property, parents also need to consider their minor children. If you pass away and leave a minor child behind who has no other legal parent or guardian, the court will select a guardian based on the best interests of the child. The court-appointed guardian may not be your first choice, so executing a Will allows you to appoint a guardian of your choosing.

What can you do now?

Planning ahead provides a road map for your family and provides reassurance that your property is passing to your desired beneficiaries. A properly executed estate plan will nominate a Personal Representative of your choosing to handle the administration process, provide clear distribution instructions and lessen the likelihood of family conflict. Everything from burial arrangements, to pet care, to guardianship for minors, to distribution instructions for your family heirlooms can be planned for by creating a comprehensive estate plan.

In addition to giving you peace of mind, having a plan in place can circumvent arguments among family members which will undoubtedly lead to wasted time, expense and family turmoil.

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