By Kim Gardey

If you die without a will, there has to be a process for determining who gets your property. Somehow, the ownership of assets has to be resolved.

Every state has acknowledged this need for closure, and all state legislatures have enacted laws that dictate who gets what in the event someone dies without a will. While every state differs in the solution they have come up with, there are many features common to all.

Michigan is typical:

  • If you have a surviving spouse but no children, the spouse inherits everything.
  • If you have a surviving spouse and surviving children, both share in the inheritance.
  • If you have no surviving spouse but do have surviving children, the children will inherit.
  • If you have no surviving spouse and no surviving children, your parents inherit.
  • If you have no surviving spouse, children, or parents, your estate will go to your brothers and sisters then to your nieces and nephews.

However, it is not crucial that you know what your state law dictates if you die without a will. Even if the terms of the state law are acceptable to you, legal fees generated from dying without a will can be significantly greater than the cost of preparing a will. This isn’t counting the burden placed on your heirs of dealing with legal problems.

Unfortunately, failure to leave a will puts you in good company. Many celebrities have died without a will (the legal term for this is “intestate”). Among these celebrities are Martin Luther King, Jim Hendrix, Howard Hughes, Amy Winehouse, and, most recently, Prince.

So, unless you want your state legislature to decide who will get your stuff, you need to have a will prepared.*

What to Do

While impersonal websites offer simple wills at little or no cost, the reasonable approach is to consult with an attorney, preferably one who specializes in estate planning. Getting the advice and assistance of someone who is aware of your personal situation is the best course of action.

*Note: There are other methods aside from a will that can be used to distribute your assets at your death. Your financial advisor or an estate planning attorney can describe these methods and the advantages of each of them.