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What Happens if You Die Without a Will – or Your Will Needed Updating

There’s no question everyone should have a will, but the AARP reports that 42 percent of Baby Boomers still haven’t taken this important, basic step. 

If you don’t have a will, do you know what happens to your hard-earned assets when you die? 

They are subject to your state’s laws of intestate probate – intestate means dying without a will - and you may be surprised who could end up with your worldly goods if you neglect to declare beneficiaries in a last will and testament.

Georgia Laws on Intestate Succession

In Georgia, as in other states, intestate probate is based on marital and blood ties. When a person – the decedent - dies intestate, here are how assets solely owned by them are divided:

  • Spouse, if there are no children
  • Spouse and children, including children of any child who predeceased the decedent.
  • Parents, if there is no spouse, children or grandchildren
  • Siblings, including the children of any sibling dying before the decedent
  • Grandparents
  • Aunts and Uncles
  • First cousins – all of whom share equally

If the decedent doesn’t have any first cousins, then the state of Georgia uses a mathematical formula to determine the closest relative. 

In essence, an estate may be left to a total or virtual stranger. 

Keep in mind that girlfriends, boyfriends, best friends, etc. don’t fall into any of these categories. 

If you’re estranged from a relative on this list but they are your next of kin for intestate probate purposes, they could enjoy the fruits of your labor and savings if you die without a will.

The Importance of Updating a Will

Perhaps you have a will, but it was written quite some time ago. 

If you haven’t updated it and have experienced major life changes, your estate could either go to someone to whom you didn’t intend to leave it, or your heirs could end up with significant legal fees trying to sort out the situation. 

If you have divorced, been widowed or had children since writing your will, it’s time to update it. 

For example, if your former spouse is still listed in the will and you have remarried, your ex won’t inherit – Georgia law provides that divorced spouses are considered to have predeceased the decedent in such situations – but your current spouse will have to go through administrative burdens during his or her period of mourning.

Unique in Georgia -Spousal Disinheritance

Georgia holds the dubious distinction of being the only state in the nation in which you can disinherit your spouse. 

If you go this route, the best your disinherited spouse can expect is a year’s allowance from your estate, based on financial need, much like temporary alimony during divorce. 

Not many people take this route, but those who do generally have a very good reason.  

If you have been long separated from your spouse but never divorced, they will inherit all of your estate if you have no children and die without a will.  Even if you do have children, the spouse is entitled to at least one-third of the estate.

Peace of Mind

No one likes contemplating their demise, and that’s probably the major reason so many Baby Boomers have still not taken that crucial first step in putting their affairs in order via a will. 

Think of the situation another way. 

You want to make sure your loved ones are cared for after you’re gone, receiving their proper due. Perhaps there are bequests you’d like to make, ensuring a friend or relative receives items you treasure or an organization or church you support receives funds. Just because you made such a request orally doesn’t mean your heirs have to honor it, unless it’s in your will. 

Creating a will gives you peace of mind, knowing that the assets you’ve earned and the objects you treasure are going to the people or groups you want to have them. 

John Farrell is an Atlanta based wills and estates lawyer and co-founder of The Farrell Law Firm.

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