If you believe you are a legal heir to someone’s estate, but that person has died without estate planning documents such as a will, you might not know what steps to take to claim your inheritance. The requirements for receiving assets or money that are left to you in such an estate depend on the laws of the state, whether there are other potential heirs and whether any assets are linked to beneficiary designations.
When someone dies without leaving a will or other estate documents, then the person is considered to have died intestate. Basically, that’s just a term for “without a will,” and intestacy estates are probated under the general laws of the state in question. Intestacy laws usually ensure that primary heirs, such as surviving spouses or children of the deceased, receive an inheritance under the estate. Depending on the situation, other family members such as step-children, grandchildren and siblings might also inherit something from an intestate process — especially if no other closer heirs are found.
One exception to these rules might be if a beneficiary is named on a specific account or insurance policy. If someone names a specific person as the beneficiary on a life insurance policy, for example, then the policy would pay out to that person upon the death of the relevant person. A life insurance policy doesn’t require a will — or probate — for payment to be transferred to the beneficiary. The same is true of some checking and savings accounts and some investment and retirement accounts.
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If you are an heir or beneficiary and you believe assets — such as a checking account — should come direct to you, then you might want to work with an estate lawyer to ensure those assets aren’t caught up in probate. You might also benefit from guidance in intestacy matters if you are dealing with possible heirs or a complex estate with no will.