Intestate Succession: What Happens When Someone Dies Without a Will?

Estate administration is complicated, and it can be even more complicated when a person passes away without a will. A last will and testament is a core estate planning document. It allows a person to control what happens to their property and their assets after they pass away. You may be wondering: What happens if someone dies without a will in Florida? The short answer is that they are deemed “intestate,” and their property and assets will be distributed based on state law. In this article, our Fort Lauderdale estate planning attorney provides a more comprehensive guide to what happens when someone passes away without a valid will in Florida. 

Intestate Succession: Defined

As defined by the Legal Information Institute, intestate succession is simply a legal term used to describe the “process that comes into play when someone passes away without leaving behind a valid will.” As stated previously, an estate without a will is handled under the applicable state law. The intestate succession laws vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Though, they are generally designed to prioritize close family members. Under Florida law (Florida Statutes § 732.101), “any part of the estate of a decedent not effectively disposed of by will passes to the decedent’s heirs as prescribed” by the state’s legal code. 

Intestate Succession Rules Override Personal Wishes Without Valid Will

Every adult should have a will in place. It serves as the cornerstone legal document for any estate plan in Florida. Other estate planning tools—including things like trusts and beneficiary designations—can also be used to pass property and assets to heirs. However, any assets that are not covered by a will (or another estate planning vehicle) will become subject to the intestate succession rules set up by Florida law. The rules are rigid: They do not take a person’s actual wishes into account—meaning a person who does not draft a will loses control over their own property. 

A Comprehensive Overview of Intestate Succession Laws in Florida

How does intestate succession actually work in Florida? The answer depends on several different factors—with the most notable being the family structure of the deceased. Here is an overview of intestate succession in Florida in seven of the most common scenarios: 

  • Scenario 1 (Spouse, No Children): It is the most straightforward form of intestate succession in Florida.  If an individual passes away, leaving behind a spouse but no children, the entirety of their estate is granted to the surviving spouse. In this case, the spouse becomes the sole inheritor, possessing unreserved rights to all properties and assets.
  • Scenario 2 (Spouse and Only Shared Children): Although the risk of family conflict is heightened, the second scenario is also relatively straightforward from a legal perspective. If the deceased leaves behind both a spouse and children that are the joint offspring of the couple, the surviving spouse once again inherits the entire estate.
  • Scenario 3 (Children, No Spouse): If the deceased has children but no surviving spouse, the children become the full inheritors of the estate, sharing it amongst themselves. Of course, in practice, this can be complicated if certain assets—such as a house—are difficult to divide evenly in practice. 
  • Scenario 4 (Spouse, but Some Unshared Children): Things become more complex if the deceased has a spouse and children, but the spouse also has children from a previous relationship. In this situation, Florida law mandates that the surviving spouse receives half of the estate while the deceased’s children divide the remaining half equally.
  • Scenario 5 (No Spouse, No Children): How does intestate succession work if the deceased does not have a surviving spouse or any surviving children? In Florida, the estate is passed entirely to the parents—assuming there is still at least one surviving parent. 
  • Scenario 6 (No Spouse, No Children, No Parents): If a person departs without a spouse or children, and their parents are no longer alive, the estate passes in full to the siblings of the deceased. The siblings only have rights under Florida’s intestate succession laws in this specific situation. 
  • Scenario 7 (No Valid Heirs): Finally, if a person dies without any legally recognized heirs, Florida can actually take control of a person’s estate. In other words, the state can name itself the beneficiary of a person when there is no legally valid will in place. 

What type of rights do unmarried long-term partners or close friends have under Florida’s intestate succession laws? Unfortunately, for people in this situation, the answer is none. Indeed, it is crucial to note that intestate succession does not consider unrelated parties as valid heirs. To pass your estate to a non-immediate family member, or a dear friend, you need to articulate your desires in a legally recognized will or trust. Without this, those wishes are invisible in the eyes of the law, 

An Attorney Can Help You Navigate Estate Administration Without a Will

The absence of a legally valid will can complicate the process of estate administration. It is a situation where the expertise of a top Florida probate and estate administration attorney becomes invaluable. Your Florida lawyer can help you navigate through the complex laws of intestate succession and estate administration. Among other things, this includes gathering assets, notifying creditors, identifying and locating legal heirs, interpreting the provisions of state intestate succession laws, assessing the value of the deceased’s estate, handling debt settlement, and facilitating the proper distribution of assets. With professional knowledge, a Florida attorney can simplify what can be a confusing and daunting process. 

Get Help From Our Florida Estate Planning Lawyer

At The Law Offices of Odelia Goldberg, our Fort Lauderdale estate planning lawyer has the skills and experience to help you and your family put the best possible plan in place. If you have any questions about intestate succession in Florida, we are here as a legal resource. Contact our legal team today to set up your completely confidential initial appointment. From our office location in Fort Lauderdale, we provide estate planning representation throughout Southeast Florida. 

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With over 50 years of combined experience, our probate, estate planning, real estate, elder law and asset protection attorneys provide peace of mind for our clients throughout South Florida.

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