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Dying intestate: What it means for your family

You always meant to get around to writing a will, but you never did. Now, in the aftermath of your death, your family is learning that not having a will can cause trouble. When you die without a will, the laws of intestate succession determine who inherits your estate, and it may not be whom you expect.

The first thing that the laws look at is whether or not you were married. In most cases, when one spouse dies, the spouse's community assets are transferred to that individual. Other assets, including separate property, only go to the widow or widower if there are no children, parents, brothers, sisters or other direct relatives. If there are, then the separate property goes to those individuals before the spouse.

If you have a child, then half of your separate property goes to your child and half to your spouse assuming there are no other heirs. If you have more than one child, the separate property in the estate is split up with your spouse receiving a third before the other two or more children receive the remaining assets. In these situations, your spouse receives assets only when there are no other direct heirs, like your parents or siblings.

It can become complicated if you die intestate, because your spouse may not end up receiving the property you expected he or she would. Much of the property is doled out to others in the family and potentially to people you did not want to be the recipients of your assets.

How can you avoid dying intestate?

Make sure you speak to your attorney about creating a will or living trust. A will can make sure your wishes are known long before your death and that all your property goes to those you wish to be the beneficiaries. A revocable living trust can be altered as you age, so there's always a document in place to let the family know whom you want as the recipients of your assets.

Your attorney can help you create either of these documents to give you peace of mind about your estate.

Source: Nov. 30, -0001

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