I've gotten a few questions in the past couple months from loved ones of individuals who have passed away without a will. The primary question is always, "Where do I even start?" Here's a few places to start trying to sort out an estate that did not have an estate plan in place.
First and foremost, be absolutely certain a will actually does not exist. Sometimes there is a will that's old, outdated or otherwise hidden in a place you may not have thought of. Check the file cabinet, the desk drawers, and the fireproof safe. Call the bank and see if your loved one had a safe deposit box. Go through your loved one’s contacts and see if you can get in touch with any lawyers, accountants, or financial advisors who may know of a will or estate plan. This is important, because if you end up going through probate, you'll be asked what lengths you took to ensure no will exists.
If there's truly no will and no directions you can find on how to distribute the estate, you’ll need to gather any tax returns or financial statements you can to piece together to figure out what the assets were at the time of your loved one's death. Also take care to call HR at your loved one's most recent company to check for retirement accounts. Check with your loved one's insurance agent as well to see if there was life insurance in place.
Here's where it gets tricky. If your loved one was legally married to someone other than you or has children, you will need to check the inheritance laws in your state to see what law controls the distribution. In Minnesota, in some cases, the entire estate would pass to the surviving spouse. In other cases, the entire estate would pass to the surviving children. In yet another scenario where there is a surviving spouse and surviving children from a different or previous relationship, the estate could be split between the spouse and the children in various shares. In other instances still, the law might dictate that the deceased individual's parents or siblings could inherit.
Whether or not you encounter speed bumps in working out what the inheritance may be, not having a will to guide you is definitely not ideal. But if you are a loved one left behind to deal with an unspecified estate, don't sort through it alone. Some much needed guidance is only a phone call away.