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What if You Die Without a Will?

April 3, 2013

Every person who lives in New York State dies in one of two ways: with a Will (testate) or without a Will (intestate).

If a person dies with a Will, that decedent leaves a document directing the disposition of what they own and naming a person to administer their estate (the Executor).  A Will can name a guardian for a child of the person signing the Will (the Testator), in case the child’s parents are deceased. It can provide for special administration of property for the benefit of a child or a disabled person. A Will can contain the Testator’s burial or funeral instructions, although few Wills do so. In most cases, the Testator or the Testator’s family arranges a funeral aside from the Will. In very limited circumstances, an unwritten (oral) or handwritten Will is allowed. These limited circumstances apply to members of the United States armed forces during a war and to mariners at sea.

If a person who lives in New York State dies without a Will, the laws of New York State direct disposition of what that decedent owns, among their nearest family members, in fixed amounts or shares of the estate. The rights to administer the decedent’s estate also pass to the decedent’s nearest family members. Priorities among family members, as beneficiaries or to administer the estate, are set by law.

If a person dies without a Will, what that decedent owns may be given to family members that the person might not want to inherit, and the estate may end up being administered by someone other than who the decedent might prefer.

Even a so-called “simple Will” gives a person’s survivors a starting point for what that Testator wanted done with what the Testator owned, and how the Testator wants his or her estate to be administered.