If There’s No Will, Where Does The Money Go?

Nothing is more terrifying than uncertainty, and that is exactly what people experience when there is no estate plan in place.  I regularly have potential clients come in to my office worried that they will not be receiving their inheritance because their loved one had not made a will.  Luckily, Washington law provides for distribution of assets when no estate plan has been provided; unfortunately, it often results in assets being transferred to unintended individuals or otherwise provide some other unwanted consequence.

So wait, your telling me that even without a will, the decedent’s assets will be passed on to his/her heirs?  How does that work?

Basically, the state of Washington realizes that not everyone has an estate plan; sometimes deaths are unexpected, sometimes an estate plan is invalid, and sometimes people just plain don’t want to deal with putting one together.  In these instances, Washington has put together a back-up plan for individuals that have passed away without an estate plan; this back up plan is generally referred to as “intestate distribution.”

Ok then, great, there is a back-up plan for estates.  So where do all the assets go if we end up having to use this back-up plan?

A chapter of Washington statute specifically discusses the decent and distribution of a personal estate when a person dies intestate; it can be found in RCW 11.04.015.  To give you a brief understanding of the statute, it basically provides a list of “favorable” individuals to whom the assets will be distributed.  Primarily, the statute first favors the spouse of the deceased (if one exists), then children, parents, siblings, and so forth.  A spouse will generally receive all net community property in an estate, and then one-half to three-fourths of the separate estate.  The remaining amount is then split among the decedents children, and if no children, then to the decedent’s parents, and so on.

So if everything is going to my family, then why do I even need an estate plan in the first place?

Even though Washington law has a back up plan for your assets, it doesn’t mean that your assets are going to go where you necessarily want them to go.  As mentioned above, Washington statute designated the Spouse and your children as the primary individuals that will receive your assets (with the Spouse acquiring the lions share).  This means that parents, siblings, friends, and other individuals that you may have wanted to leave something behind for will not be entitled to any part of your estate; this can lead to friction between friends and family, and even sometimes to litigation.  Additionally, if you are intestate, you will likely be required to go through the probate process; while the probate process is not burdensome in Washington, an estate plan can be utilized to avoid it if it is unwanted.  Lastly, not having an estate plan in place can potentially lead to hefty tax consequences for larger estates.

So wait, do I need an estate plan or not?   

Well, I would take away from this that you are best off to have an estate plan in place.  It can greatly help to set forth the distribution of your assets upon death and can help to avoid any confusion that might otherwise arise.  While Washington’s intestate distribution law is a good back-up plan to have in place, it can also potentially lead to disastrous consequences.

If you have any further questions regarding intestate distribution or in preparing an estate plan, or if you are interested in having an attorney assist you with an intestate probate, Nowakowski Legal PLLC would be glad to assist.  Contact us for a free consultation today!

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