If you die without a legally valid Will, the law in England and Wales will decide who inherits what.
It doesn't matter what wishes you have expressed during your lifetime, or what your loved ones feel they are entitled to receive from your Estate (everything you own at the time of death). If there is no Will, these decisions will be taken out of your hands, and out of your family's hands.
If you have no living family members, and there is no Will, all your property and possessions, including your pets, will go to the Crown.
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Inheritance Laws in England & Wales
When you make a Will, you have the opportunity to say who you would like to inherit your property, money and other assets. As long as a Will is made correctly and no-one seeks to challenge it, then these wishes must be upheld after your death.
But if there is not a valid Will in place, then it presents problems, as there will be no legally enforceable record of your wishes. Of course, you might have told your loved ones what you want to happen. Yet this will not count in the eyes of the law.
Just imagine if verbal agreements were allowed – it would open the door to all sorts of claims and disputes, and friends and family members may come out the woodwork and say that you wanted them to inherit a portion of your Estate. It would be impossible to know who to believe.
This is why the law has a very strict set of inheritance rules that govern who should inherit what, should someone die without a legal Will in place. These laws are known as the Rules of Intestacy.
Who Inherits under the Rules of Intestacy?
Under the Rules of Intestacy, the deceased's next of kin will benefit the most. Relatives are put into a set order, which is known as the Order of Succession. Whichever living relatives are nearest the top of the list stand to inherit all (or the greatest share) of the Estate.
The simplest situation is when someone dies without a Will and their husband, wife or civil partner is still alive, but there are no children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren. In such cases, their spouse will inherit everything.
But if there are children, the spouse will inherit all the deceased's personal possessions, the first £250,000 of the Estate, and half of the remainder. The rest will be divided evenly amongst the deceased's children.
However, even if a married couple without children want their Estate to pass entirely to each other (in accordance with the Rules of Intestacy), a factor that is often overlooked is that one of them must die first. So married couples need to factor in what would happen when the surviving spouse then dies.
So it's not as simple as you might think and the Rules of Intestacy can get complicated, particularly when the Estate is large or the deceased has out-lived many of their relatives. If no living relatives can be found, then the entire Estate will go to the Crown.
Will the Wrong People Inherit Your Estate?
If you do not make a Will, it may also result in certain people benefiting from your Estate, even though you did not want them to.
A common example is when someone enters into their second marriage but wants their children to inherit everything, rather than their new spouse. However, if you do not express this in a legally valid Will and you die first, your spouse will automatically inherit under the Rules of Intestacy, potentially leaving your children with nothing.
This is why it is so incredibly important to make a Will, as it is the only way to ensure that your wishes are clear and legally recognised after your death. If you do not make a Will, you will have no say in the matter. Furthermore, neither will your loved ones, unless they seek to challenge your Will, which could result in them incurring extensive legal fees.
Time and time again our Wills Team hear people say that they do not need a Will because their loved ones know what their wishes are. However, please be advised that this will not count for anything. If you don't make a Will, the law will decide who inherits what for you.