One of the questions people have to consider as they get older is what they would like their legacy to be. You’ve spent the greater part of a lifetime forging relationships, defining your values and earning assets – what would you like to achieve with those things? Answering that question is at the core of estate planning, and the reason many people write a will.

But what exactly happens if someone dies without a will, and without any other form of estate plan? Here’s a brief overview.

Dying intestate

There is a legal term courts use when somebody dies without a will. It is referred to as dying intestate.

With a will, someone can detail not just who should get what property and assets, but also designate a trusted person to oversee the legal process that comes with administering an estate. Without a will, these decisions will generally fall to the courts, which will follow intestate succession laws.

Under Georgia law, how somebody’s property gets divided depends on the existence of surviving family members. For example, if someone is survived by a spouse and has no children, then the spouse inherits everything. If someone is survived by children but no spouse, the kids split the estate. A few more examples:

  • A surviving spouse and children: The estate is split between them, but the surviving spouse must get at least one-third
  • Surviving parents, no spouse or children: The parents inherit the entirety of the estate
  • Surviving siblings, no spouse or children: The siblings (and potentially their children) inherit everything

Why this matters

Intestate succession laws are rigid. That means family and loved ones will be left, in part, to simply deal with what the courts determine, regardless of whether it is right for the family or what the deceased may have wanted. An estate with debts may also leave behind very little, it anything, while taxes and court fees can potentially eat into that further.

While a will is maybe the most well-known tool within estate planning, it is not the only option. A trust can help set up dependents for the future, and maybe even protect valuable items and wealth from outside factors. Charitable gifts can also leave a lasting mark.

This is why having a will – and, more broadly speaking, effective estate planning – matters. It ensures the legacy you leave behind is one you choose.

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