Most of don’t know a lot about the law of wills, trusts, or probate–after all, they’re topics none of us really want to deal with. But we should all know the basics, and we should know enough to recognize common myths when we run across them. Here are a few misconceptions that keep coming around.
1. If someone dies without a will, the state gets everything.
There are lots of reasons to write a will, but worrying about the state snatching your family’s inheritance is not one of them. If you die without a valid will (the legal term for this is dying “intestate”), then state law kicks in. Every state has its own rules for who inherits what.
Generally, your spouse and children are first in line to inherit. The rules vary from state to state, however; in some states, a surviving spouse and minor children share the deceased parent’s assets. (And there’s a good reason to write a will: you don’t want your eight-year-old to inherit a quarter of your bank accounts, do you?)
So do assets ever go to the state? Yes, but only when no relatives can be found. As long as your personal representative (the person in charge of wrapping up your estate) can turn up your uncle’s long-lost grandchild, the state won’t get your money. The term for this is called “escheat,” and there’s a reason you’ve probably never heard that word—escheat is very rare.
Tip: Write your will! Even if the state won’t get your money, you still want to decide who does—so don’t leave that decision up to state law. Making a will is easy, and it doesn’t cost a lot.