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What Happens If You Die Without a Will or Living Trust?

In Washington, if you die without a will or living trust, your estate will be distributed, but perhaps not in the manner you intended.

The first distribution after death is usually the payment of debts of your estate. Next, if you have certain accounts or assets that have designated beneficiaries, those assets will go to the named beneficiaries.  Accounts and assets with designated beneficiaries include the following:

  • Property which is transferred by a Washington community property agreement
  • Property held in joint tenancy
  • Trust proceeds
  • Life insurance
  • Employee benefits
  • Individual retirement accounts
  • Other types of property or contracts where a specific beneficiary other than a decedents’s estate has been designated.

Some of the beneficiaries of the above assets will share in the responsibility for payment of expenses of administration of the estate and claims of creditors of the estate.

Property which has not been disposed of by one of the above methods will be in your probated estate.  If you die without a valid will (a condition known as dying “intestate”) the probate court will appoint an administrator to handle the distribution of your estate. The distribution will be by a court probate proceeding and according to the laws of descent and distribution set out in RCW 11.04.015.  The state’s distribution scheme may not be what you had in mind for your estate.

You can avoid confusion and survivors’ disappointment if you plan head.  You can decide now where you want your estate to go, and then make sure you have the documents in place to accomplish your wishes.  For most people, the best way to control the disposition of their estate is by a will, a revocable living trust, and/or a community property agreement.  The documents that will be most appropriate for you will depend on your individual circumstances.

If you do not plan ahead, you will likely be subject to the statute set out below:

REV. CODE WASH. (ARCW) § 11.04.015  (2008)

§ 11.04.015. Descent and Distribution of Real and Personal Estate

The net estate of a person dying intestate, or that portion thereof with respect to which the person shall have died intestate, shall descend subject to the provisions of RCW 11.04.250 and 11.02.070, and shall be distributed as follows:

  1. Share of surviving spouse or state registered domestic partner. The surviving spouse or state registered domestic partner shall receive the following share:
    • (a) All of the decedent’s share of the net community estate; and
    • (b) One-half of the net separate estate if the intestate is survived by issue; or
    • (c) Three-quarters of the net separate estate if there is no surviving issue, but the intestate is survived by one or more of his parents, or by one or more of the issue of
      one or more of his parents; or
    • (d)All of the net separate estate, if there is no surviving issue nor parent nor issue of parent.
  2. Shares of others than surviving spouse or state registered domestic partner. The share of the net estate not distributable to the surviving spouse or state registered domestic  partner, or the entire net estate if there is no surviving spouse or state registered domestic partner, shall descend and be distributed as follows:
    • (a) To the issue of the intestate; if they are all in the same degree of kinship to the intestate, they shall take equally, or if of unequal degree, then those of more remote degree shall take by representation.
    • (b) If the intestate not be survived by issue, then to the parent or parents who survive the intestate.
    • (c) If the intestate not be survived by issue or by either parent, then to those issue
      of the parent or parents who survive the intestate; if they are all in the same degree of kinship to the intestate, they shall take equally, or, if of unequal degree, then those of
      more remote degree shall take by representation.
    • (d) If the intestate not be survived by issue or by either parent, or by any issue of the parent or parents who survive the intestate, then to the grandparent or grandparents who survive the intestate; if both maternal and paternal grandparents survive the intestate, the maternal grandparent or grandparents shall take one-half and the paternal grandparent or grandparents shall take one-half.
    • (e) If the intestate not be survived by issue or by either parent, or by any issue of the parent or parents or by any grandparent or grandparents, then to those issue of any grandparent or grandparents who survive the intestate; taken as a group, the issue of the maternal grandparent or grandparents shall share equally with the issue of the paternal grandparent or grandparents, also taken as a group; within each such group,
      all members share equally if they are all in the same degree of kinship to the intestate,
      or, if some be of unequal degree, then those of more remote degree shall take by
      representation.