What Happens If You Die Without a Will?
If you die without a valid will or trust — referred to as dying intestate — Arizona laws make all your decisions for you. That includes determining who gets your money and property. The laws also decide who can make your funeral and burial decisions and arrangements.
In addition, absent a will that gives your directions about what happens after you die, your estate can encounter needless delays and incur unnecessary expenses. Just as importantly, family members may disagree about a number of significant issues. Serious tension among your surviving family members can fracture lifelong relationships. In some instances, a court may need to intervene to make the decisions.
Without a will to guide distribution of your estate, your family faces many unanswered questions. Issues begin to arise immediately after your death.
Who Makes Your Funeral and Burial Decisions?
If you do not leave a legally valid document giving authority to an individual to make your final arrangements, Arizona law decides who can make those decisions. That person could be someone you would not want to have that authority.
Depending on your family and personal circumstances, application of the law can be complex. The statute sets a priority order of individuals who can make your funeral and burial arrangements. The order of priority is:
- Your surviving spouse, unless you and your spouse were legally separated or a divorce petition was filed before your death
- A person you designated to make your burial arrangements under a health care power of attorney or durable power of attorney
- Your adult children
- Your parent
- Your adult sibling
- Your adult grandchild
- Your grandparent
- An adult who “exhibited special care and concern” for you
- Your guardian at the time of death
- Another person authorized to make the arrangements
- Any person or fraternal, charitable, or religious group willing to take responsibility
In addition to establishing the priority order, the law includes detailed provisions that apply to specific situations and circumstances.
Who Administers Your Estate?
When you make a will, you designate an executor. That person collects your assets and administers your estate. If you die without a will, someone has to ask the court to name your personal representative.
An Arizona law determines who can apply. (This law is different from the law regarding who can make your burial arrangements.) The law sets a priority order of who may apply for appointment as personal representative of an estate. The order of priority is:
- A person nominated through a power in a will
- A surviving spouse who receives real property under the will
- Other individuals who receive real property under the will
- The surviving spouse
- Other heirs (individuals who inherit from the decedent under Arizona’s laws of intestate succession, which are explained below)
- The Department of Veterans’ Services, if the decedent was a veteran or spouse or child of a veteran
- Any creditor
- The public fiduciary
The law also contains detailed rules about appointment of a personal representative, objections to an appointment, and eligibility of individuals to serve as a personal representative.
The bottom line is that if you do not designate a personal representative in a will or other legal document, the person who ends up administering your estate might be someone you would not choose to collect and distribute your estate.
Who Gets Your Property?
If you die without a will, the Arizona laws of intestate succession determine your heirs — the individuals who receive your money and other assets. The laws are extremely complex.
Generally, your family situation determines how your estate is distributed. The law gives preference to your surviving spouse and your biological children. If you do not have a surviving spouse or children, then your parents, siblings, and extended family (in that order) may be entitled to a share of the estate. If you have no relatives entitled to the estate, the State of Arizona can claim your assets.
The intestate succession laws give your estate assets only to your relatives. Unrelated loved ones or others you care about receive nothing. This result can be particularly difficult in blended family situations, if you do not have a legal relationship with children in your family who are not your biological children.
If you die intestate, the law may distribute your property completely contrary to your wishes. That can happen in several different ways:
- People you love and care about may receive nothing from your estate.
- People you do not wish to benefit from your estate could end up with all of it.
- If you have organizations or groups that you care deeply about — like your church — that group does not benefit from your estate.
The only way you can avoid these potential consequences — and make certain your funeral and burial are carried out as you wish — is to take the relatively small amount of time required to have an experienced estate planning attorney draft a will for you.
What Happens to Your Business?
Many individually-owned and family-owned businesses do not survive the death of the person who established and built the business. Often, that occurs due to lack of succession planning for the business.
If you own a business, having an estate plan that includes a business succession plan is essential. Without that plan, you have no control over what happens to your business after your death. The tangible and intangible assets of your business could be sold or given to someone you would not trust to run your business. Your family could lose the business — and be deprived of benefiting from all the hard work you put into building your business.
If you own a small business, you care deeply about what happens to the business after your death or even if you are unable to run it even for a brief period. You can address those concerns by asking Peterson Law Offices to develop a business succession plan as part of your estate plan.
Schedule a Free Consultation to Talk with an Experienced East Valley Estate Planning Attorney
At Peterson Law Offices, wills and estate planning are a focus of our practice. We take pride in providing high-quality services at affordable prices. We also help business owners with all aspects of business formation and operations, including succession planning.
We welcome inquiries from clients throughout the East Valley, including Queen Creek, San Tan Valley, Gilbert, Mesa, and Chandler. Schedule your free initial consultation by calling 480-878-5998 or using our online contact form.