Many Washington residents do not have an estate plan or will. If they die unexpectedly, their family members will have only prior personal conversations to rely on regarding the division of assets.
Unfortunately, people dying without estate plans is common enough that Washington state has laws addressing this specific situation. When someone dies without a last will, they die “intestate.” A family member’s statement about what they wanted to do with their property will not be sufficient to convince the courts to distribute property a certain way.
The family will need to inform the probate courts of the circumstances and defer to state law regarding the distribution of assets.
Who inherits from an intestate estate?
Immediate family members are the ones protected under Washington state law if an individual dies without an estate plan. The closest family members of the deceased are the ones with the strongest claim.
Spouses have protection under Washington community property laws, but children also have statutory rights when a parent dies. Exactly how a surviving spouse should split the assets left behind with the children depends on whether they are a parent or a stepparent to those children.
If someone dies with neither a spouse nor children, then their parents will have inheritance rights. More distant family members may receive property from someone’s estate when the person who dies does not have close family members to inherit their assets.
In the rare situation that someone has no family available to inherit assets from the estate, their assets may eventually become the property of the state of Washington.
Why estate planning matters
There is little nuance to intestate succession. Relationships outside of your family will have no bearing on the estate administration process.
For those in long-term romantic relationships with someone that they have not married or those estranged from their family, dying without a will means that the people they love will not inherit their property.
By taking the time to create an estate plan, you retain control over what happens to your most valuable possessions after you die. You can name someone to take care of those who depend on you and also leave assets for those not directly related to you. Understanding what happens if you die without a will might motivate you to create an estate plan.