If you die without an estate plan, your assets pass to your surviving family members according to your state’s intestate succession laws. Laws vary by state and depend largely on whether you were married and if you had children.

Spouses and children are given top priority, followed by your closet living family members. If you’re single with no children, your assets typically go to your parents and siblings, and then more distant relatives if you have no living parents or siblings.

If no living relatives can be found, your assets go to the state. Note that intestacy laws only recognize blood relatives, so unmarried partners are typically entitled to nothing if you die without a plan. 

Not all assets are governed by intestacy laws. Assets with beneficiary designations, such as life insurance and 401ks, pass to the named beneficiaries. Property you own with others, such as in joint tenancy, passes to the surviving co-owner(s).

If you have minor children and die with no plan and haven’t designated a legal guardian, a judge will appoint one for them. This might be someone in your family you’d never choose or even foster parents, if you have no surviving relatives or the ones you have are deemed unfit.

Given the heartbreak this is likely to cause your loved ones, it’s absolutely critical to at least create a will and name legal guardians for your minor kids—and do so immediately! As your Personal Family Lawyer®, I can detail the planning options best suited for your situation.