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Intestacy: What happens if I die without leaving a Will?

21 January 2015

If you die without leaving a Will, the rules of intestacy apply. Read our simple guide to intestacy and inheritance.

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Writing a will ensures that your wishes are followed

If you die without leaving a Will, the rules of intestacy apply.  

What is intestacy?

What happens to the estate of someone who dies without leaving a Will is dictated by the rules of intestacy, which uses a rigid formula to determine who gets what.

Under the rules, the estate passes to family members, eg, spouse, children, etc, in a specific priority order. This is regardless of any wishes the deceased may have expressed about their preferred heir or heirs and is why it’s so important to write a Will.

Who inherits under intestacy rules?

The rules follow a logical pattern, with your estate passing to your closest living relative or relatives, starting with your spouse or civil partner – even if you’re separated. If you’re not married, in a civil partnership or widowed, the estate passes to your children.

If you leave behind children and a spouse or civil partner, your partner will inherit all of your personal belongings, as well as the first £250,000 of the estate and half the value of anything that remains. The children take the other half.

How to reduce inheritance tax.

What if I am not married to my partner?

Unmarried couples have no rights under intestacy rules. This means if you die, your cohabiting partner won’t receive a penny from your estate, which automatically goes to your children or next closest living relative.

If your children have died, your estate passes to your grandchildren or great-grandchildren. If there are none, your parents are next in line, followed by full blood siblings and then nephews and nieces, and then half blood siblings and half blood nephews and nieces. After that, the inheritance passes to any surviving grandparents, uncles and aunts, cousins, then half-uncles and half–aunts, followed by half cousins.

Who inherits if no relatives can be found?

If someone dies leaving no traceable, living relatives the estate passes to the Crown, or to either the Duchy of Lancaster or the Duchy of Cornwall if the deceased lived in these regions. Close friends, carers, unmarried partners and relatives by marriage cannot inherit.

Long lost relatives occasionally turn up or are traced by heir hunters and are free to lodge inheritance claims for ownerless property. They can do so with the Treasury Solicitor’s department, or the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service in Scotland. If successful, the estate and any interest earned on it will be legally passed to the beneficiary.

How to make a Will.

What if my family want to change how my estate is shared out?

It’s possible to alter the way an estate is shared out after someone dies without leaving a Will by making what’s called a Deed of Family Arrangement, also known as a Deed of Variation. This would allow someone who was excluded from inheriting, such as the surviving, unmarried partner, to receive a share of the estate. However, for this to happen all legal beneficiaries whose share is affected by the proposed variation must agree to the change in writing.

To avoid getting caught out and ensure your wishes are followed, it is important to write a Will.

Please note that the rules are slightly different in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Read our guide to challenging a Will.


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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.