Death comes when we aren’t ready. Maybe the death occurred because of an unexpected accident or illness. Many delays keep us from preparing a will. Maybe it is just too hard to think about what happens when we die. If someone fails to prepare a will and dies in Connecticut, what happens to that person’s possessions and assets?
In this article, we describe what happens to your estate when you die without a will in Connecticut. Some assets pass automatically to the next of kin while other assets must go through probate. If you want to control where your assets go after your death, an estate planning attorney can help by creating a will that survives the probate process and makes it easier for those left behind. The key takeaway is that it’s important to have a will that doesn’t fail. Many wills do not stand up in probate court simple because of the way a will is written and signed. Wills created without an attorney come to mind.
If a loved one has died without a will, or if you or a relative don’t yet have a will, our probate attorneys at the Northeast Law Center can help. Call us at 860-928-2429 in Putnam or click here to fill out a contact form on our website and send it in to connect with us.
Helping Families through Probate, With or Without a Will
Not everyone has a will in place. The unfortunate truth is many Connecticut residents die every day without a will, trust, or an estate plan. We work with families who come to us at The Northeast Law Center in Putnam and Killingly after a relative passes to help them put the deceased’s affairs in order so the estate can be finalized.
While we recommend some form of estate planning, we are also happy to help families whose loved ones die without a will. We guide the family through intestacy proceedings. Intestacy is the legal name for the estate of a person who dies without will. Intestacy also apply where a will or declaration has been made, but applies to just part of the estate, leaving some elements outside the will, or the intestate estate. This involves opening an estate in the Connecticut Probate Court, determining the legal heirs and their inheritance, and then distributing the assets to the appropriate people.
Connecticut Probate Courts Handle Inheritance if You Die Without a Will
Intestacy is a legal process through which the court determines who should inherit from a person’s estate, and how much. It includes a few steps:
Identifying Heirs at Law
One of the first steps the Connecticut Probate Court will take is to make sure everyone who should be involved in the probate process has received the appropriate notices. This means that you and your probate lawyer will have to identify family members and in-laws who may be legally entitled to inherit something from the deceased’s estate. Depending on the family situation, this could include the deceased’s:
- Current spouse and ex-spouses, who may have rights as trustees for their children’s inheritances;
- Children from current and past relationships including adopted children;
- Sons- and daughters-in-law;
- Grandchildren and great-grandchildren;
- Parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters; and
- Aunts, uncles, cousins, and other relatives.
While it is a good idea to fill in the entire family tree, not all these people will inherit money. The court assigns property based on how closely related a person was to the deceased. Beyond a person’s spouse, children, and sometimes parents, other relatives will inherit only if there is no one higher in priority.
Taking Inventory and Paying Debts
Next, the court asks the family, or the person filing the estate, sometimes called the executor, to establish what the deceased person’s assets and debts were at the time of death. The court will want to be sure that all the deceased’s bills are paid before distributing money to the heirs. In addition to unpaid bills, other expenses could include:
- Funeral, cremation, or burial expenses;
- Taxes owed by the deceased’s estate;
- Final medical expenses; and
- Outstanding personal debt including credit cards.
The court may order the executor or the person administering the estate to send out notice to known or suspected creditors and to publicize the person’s death to make sure all outstanding debts are identified and paid. It will then be up to the estate administrator to pay the debts and provide a complete inventory and accounting to the court.
Distributing the Estate
Once all the debts are paid, whatever is left in the deceased’s estate is distributed to the heirs at law. Who gets how much depends on the size of the estate, and the family members the deceased left behind. A person’s spouse and children get top priority. In many cases, they may receive everything the deceased had if that person died without a will. The court uses the laws of the state in which the person died to divide the assets and will order the sale of property to make sure each heir receives a fair share of the estate.
Assets that Pass to Beneficiaries Without Going to Court
Not every asset a person owned must go through the probate process. When a Connecticut resident dies, there are certain assets that pass automatically to the beneficiaries without going through the court. These may include:
- Jointly titled houses, cars, and bank accounts which pass to the other title holders;
- Life insurance benefits, which get paid directly to beneficiaries; and
- Trust assets, which are administered by a trustee and paid out to beneficiaries according to the terms of the trust that the deceased set up when the trust was created.
Why You May Not Want to Die Without a Will in Connecticut
Understanding the probate system in Connecticut may cause you to understand why we recommend setting up an estate plan and, at the least, a will. The probate process can be avoided by establishing an estate plan, if this is the goal. The estate planning process is designed to ensure that your final wishes are honored, sometimes without even going to court. An estate plan is the best way to:
- Dictate who receives a portion of your estate including non-relatives or excluding relatives;
- Prevent an ex-spouse from controlling and spending an inheritance awarded to a child;
- Make legacy donations to religious organizations, charities, or other non-profits;
- Control who receives specific items, property, or objects;
- Reduce or avoid estate taxes that an heir must pay on the inheritance;
- Control when and how children or disabled relatives receive their inheritances;
- Prevent your financial information from becoming public in a Connecticut probate court, and
- Reduce or eliminate probate court estate administration fees and costs.
That’s why it is a good idea to talk to an estate planning attorney early, even before you expect to need an estate plan or a will. By working ahead, you can avoid the costs and trouble that happen if you die without a will in Connecticut. The last thing you may want to happen can be avoided: your heirs contesting their inheritances in court. We recommend you take the time now to avoid problems in the future.
At The Northeast Law Center, we are happy to help families with a will, probate, and estate plan to avoid and control future problems when you pass away. Our probate attorneys can help you and your family meet the demands of the Connecticut Probate Court, or plan ahead to avoid them altogether. Call us at 860-928-2429 for our Putnam office, or click here to fill out a contact form, and connect with a one of our lawyers.