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What happens when a person dies without a will?

When a person dies without a Will, the law states who will inherit. This law is known as the rules of intestacy. The law is the same for everyone, and there is a strict order of priority for inheritance, which broadly follows the family line. It does not take into account individual family circumstances and cannot be changed without the agreement of the beneficiaries who inherit. It is essential to prepare a family tree when dealing with the estate of a person who has died without a Will, to make sure that the estate is distributed correctly. Although this is a brief introduction to the order of priority and inheritance, the rules of intestacy can be complicated and should consider taking legal advice before dealing with the administration of the estate.

Married couples

Where one half of a married couple dies, the surviving spouse will inherit from their estate. What they inherit depends on the size and nature of the estate, and whether the deceased also had any children.

Where the deceased had no children, the survivor will broadly inherit all the deceased’s assets, subject to some exceptions, such as joint property owned with another person.

Where the deceased had a spouse and children, if the value of the estate is under £270,000, the surviving spouse will inherit the entire estate. If over £270,000, the assets will be split between the surviving spouse and the children. The surviving spouse will receive the first £270,000 in the estate, as well as all the deceased's personal possessions. Anything left over will be divided into two. The spouse will take half, and the deceased's children will inherit half.


Where the deceased had no surviving spouse but did have children, the children will inherit their parent’s estate equally. If any of them have died before the deceased, leaving children of their own, those children will inherit in their parent’s place.

Remoter relatives

If someone dies without a spouse or children, their wider family will inherit. In priority order, their parents, siblings, nieces and nephews, grandparents, aunts and uncles or cousins will inherit. If there is more than one person in the class (i.e. if the deceased had two surviving parents), they inherit equally. If they leave no surviving family, the estate passes to the Crown. Friends and loved ones who are not blood relatives do not inherit. Once someone from the class has been identified, it is not necessary to look any further, so if the deceased's parents survive them, they inherit the entire estate, and the inheritance does not filter down the list.

Cohabiting couples

Unfortunately, the intestacy rules do not provide for couples who are not married, no matter how long they have been together. If your partner has died and you were not married, you will not inherit their estate under the intestacy rules. The exception to this rule is joint property, for example, a house or bank account in both names, which may pass to the survivor. It is important, if you are in this situation, that you take legal advice as we will be able to advise you of your rights and entitlements.

We know that every family is different, and the rules of intestacy can seem unfair.  If you do not have a Will, it is important to make one, to ensure that your estate is distributed in accordance with your wishes. If you know someone who has died without a Will and the intestacy rules does not result in an adequate provision for their loved ones or dependents, we may also be able to help you.

Lauren Puttock-Brown