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So what ACTUALLY happens if you don't have a will?

I’ve written once or twice about why you need a will, and I’m sure you’ve heard about celebrities like Aretha Franklin or Prince who died without wills. It might be obvious why the ultra-rich should’ve had the foresight to put a will in place. But what exactly happens to us regular folk if we don’t have wills?


If a person dies without a will, they died “intestate”. The state of Minnesota has laws in place for people who die intestate, and those laws are known as the laws of intestate succession. In other words, Minnesota has a free estate plan in place for you if you neglect to make one for yourself. Here’s what it looks like. 


If you’re married without kids OR you and your spouse have children together, your whole estate goes to your spouse.


If you or your spouse have any children that are not in common, the first $225,000 of your estate goes to your spouse, with the remainder split 50/50 between your spouse and YOUR kids. 


If you don’t have a spouse, everything you have goes to your kids. 


If you don’t have a spouse or kids your whole estate goes to your parents. 


If you don’t have a spouse, kids or parents, everything goes to your parents’ descendants (your siblings). 


And if you have no spouse, no kids, no parents, and no siblings, the next takers would be grandparents, then descendants of grandparents and so on. 


If there is no one to take the money and property in your estate, then the state of Minnesota can claim it all.


This might sound just fine to you, but you might also notice there are a few things missing. For example, what happens if your kids are minors and need someone to care for them? 


The state of Minnesota does not insert itself that deeply into your affairs. So typically, someone would step forward, like a close family member, to take care of your children. That family member would then need to begin the process of petitioning the court for guardianship. Absent a will, anyone could petition the court to be named legal guardian of your kids. But with a will, you have almost complete control over who will be named that guardian. 


Another thing Minnesota’s laws of intestate succession don’t explicitly state for us is what happens to a significant other who isn’t actually a legal spouse. 


That’s because without a will, the state of Minnesota will not recognize that person as an heir. Legally the significant other, even if s/he has been around 20 years, will be entitled to and receive nothing. 


There are some assets you probably have already made provision for even without a will like life insurance and retirement account beneficiary designations. Those designations are separate and will be honored even if you use Minnesota’s “free estate plan”. But if you’re looking for someone to make sure grandma’s wedding ring makes it to your niece or that your house stays in the family instead of getting liquidated and sold, don’t count on the state of Minnesota to help you with the details. 


So now you know that if you don’t have a will in place, the state of Minnesota has one for you, and if Minnesota can’t find anyone in their plan to take your property, the state will happily retain that property for you. If the state’s one size fits all plan seems a little impersonal to you, make sure you make a plan of your own.

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