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A Member of My Family Died Without Leaving a Will. What Happens to Their Property?


Consider this scenario: A member of your family has recently died. You spend a couple of days going through their papers and possessions, but you are unable to find a will. So what happens now? Who takes charge of the family member’s estate? And what will ultimately happen to their property?

When a person dies without leaving a valid will, they are said to die “intestate.” Florida law then steps in and provides for what is known as “intestate succession.” This process effectively acts in place of the will and decides who will inherit the deceased individual’s probate assets.

What Is Not Considered a “Probate” Asset?

The term “probate assets” is important here. Not everything that your family member owned is necessarily subject to intestate succession. For example, if your relative previously created a trust, any asset placed into the trust falls outside of probate–the documents that created the trust will decide who receives that property. Also, any property that is subject to a beneficiary designation, like a retirement account or life insurance policy, will automatically go to the beneficiary named. Finally, property held in a joint tenancy, such as a house co-owned by a married couple, does not pass through probate; instead, the surviving co-owner retains sole ownership.

The Rules Governing Inheritance

But let’s assume that your family member did have assets that are subject to probate, and therefore need to be distributed under Florida’s intestate succession laws. What do these laws actually do?

Basically, intestate succession looks to distribute a person’s property to their closest living relatives, starting with any spouse or children. If your relative was unmarried but had any children, then those children inherit everything in equal shares. Intestate succession law does not favor one child over any other. Nor does the law distinguish between natural and legally adopted children.

If your family member left both a surviving spouse and children, things can get more complicated. The rule under intestate succession is that if all of the children belonged to both the deceased relative and their spouse–i.e., neither of them have children from another relationship–then the spouse inherits the entire estate. But if either spouse did have children from another relationship, then the estate is split equally: 50 percent to the spouse, and 50 percent to the deceased person’s children.

Now, if your relative had no spouse and no children whatsoever, then the estate would go to that person’s parents, if any, otherwise to their siblings. After that, you may need to start looking for cousins. Note that in the case of siblings, a half-sibling has the same inheritance rights as a full sibling.

Speak with a Florida Probate Attorney Today

This is only a very brief overview of how Florida intestate succession law works. There are many other issues that need to be considered when it comes to an actual estate. An experienced Fort Myers estate and probate administration lawyer can provide you with specific guidance. Contact the Kuhn Law Firm, P.A., at 239-333-4529 to schedule a free consultation with a member of our probate team today.

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