What Happens If You Die Without a Will?

In previous articles, we have explained why it is important to have an estate plan and have in place documents such as a will, power of attorney, and health care directive. This article explains what happens when you don’t have a plan in place when you pass away. So, what happens if you die without a will in Minnesota?

About one year ago, we learned the news of Prince’s sudden and unexpected death. One of Minnesota’s most famous residents passed away under unfortunate and tragic circumstances leaving behind a mysterious legacy and a vast collection of recorded and unrecorded music. The value of Prince’s music and his impact as an artist are immeasurable, indeterminate, and left for us to contemplate. There is one fact that is certain, however, Prince died without a will.

When a person dies without a will, they die intestate. The laws of intestacy, set forth in the Minnesota Probate Code, Minn. Stat. 524.2-101, determine who will inherit that person’s estate. There are many factors taken into consideration under the statute. Did the person have a spouse? Have children? Have children with that spouse or with someone else? Are his or her parents alive? What about brothers, sisters, cousins? It can be a complicated process sorting out just who on the family tree will inherit a person’s assets.

When a person dies without a will or other planning documents in place, a probate will likely have to take place, and particularly if the estate is worth more than $75,000 or the decedent owned real estate. In a probate action without a will, the presiding judge will decide who acts as personal representative to oversee the administration of the estate, the determination of heirs, the distribution of all assets, including personal property, homes, cars, other vehicles, savings, and the like. The intestacy laws will determine which heirs will inherit, and if there are no heirs, then the assets of the estate go to the State of Minnesota.

It appears that Prince died without a spouse, any surviving children, and his parents had already passed away, so according to various newspaper articles, his sister and five half-siblings will likely inherit his estate. This includes assets such as real estate, investments, and personal property. It also includes publishing rights, licensing rights, branding and merchandising opportunities, and movie rights. Prince’s siblings will inherit a music empire to manage without instruction or input from the musician himself.

By not doing his own estate planning, Prince left this complicated estate to his family members. He also missed out on the opportunity to mitigate estate taxes, make charitable contributions, and leave something to other important people in his life.

While most of us do not have such enormous and complicated estates, we do have ideas about how we would like our assets distributed when we die and who should be in charge. Just having these ideas or talking about them does not make them effective, however. You must have a validly executed will in order for your own wishes to govern. Having a will in place does not necessarily mean there will be no probate action at the time of your death, but your family, the Judge, and those involved in the probate system would much prefer to know your wishes and have your instructions to guide them through the process. So, to avoid intestacy laws and prevent leaving a complicated probate administration for your family, take the time now to get your estate planning documents in place.

At Breen & Person, estate planning is an important area of our law practice, and we are committed to helping individuals and families with these issues. Please give us a call when you are ready to complete your plan. You may send a request for topic suggestions to laura@breenandperson.com. Although we cannot give you legal advice through the column, we can provide some general information that may be helpful for you to know. Our purpose is to educate and we hope that you can take something new away from this column each time you read it.