Intestate succession is a process through the property of someone who has died without a valid will is transferred to heirs in accordance with statute. In this case, rather than distributing property as specified in a will, the executor of the estate follows regional law when determining how to break up an estate. Intestate succession is actually quite common; even wealthy people sometimes neglect to make wills or draft wills which are not considered valid.
The term “intestate” means “without a will.” Someone can die intestate in the sense that a will was never written or cannot be found, even if people believe that it exists. There can also be situations in which there is a will present but it cannot be considered valid. This may be because it has not been prepared properly or because it lacks witnesses. More complex legal challenges to validity such as questions about whether or not the testator was of sound mind may be litigated in court by surviving family members.
When someone dies intestate and the assets of the estate exceed any debts, a problem is presented because the decedent's wishes are not known. By statute in most regions, the government dictates how estates should be broken up. As a general rule, the surviving spouse is favored in intestate succession, although some regions may also indicate that certain property should pass to children. In rare cases where someone dies with no surviving family members, the property may revert to the ownership of the government.
In the event that someone dies without a will, no executor has been named either. An executor is appointed by the government to process the estate and to ensure that everything is wrapped up and the assets are distributed appropriately under the laws of intestate succession. Lawyers are often asked to serve as executors in such situations and they can collect a fee for their services to the estate.
People can avoid intestate succession by writing a will, confirming that it is valid, and making sure that the location of the will is known to family members and friends. Many lawyers who help people write wills are also happy to store a copy of the will on their premises so that it will be readily accessible. Making a will is important even if people think that they do not have any assets; the will can be used to make special legacies which might not otherwise be honored, for example, and to make people aware of assets which they might not be familiar with, such as a safe deposit box at a bank.