Who Inherits an Estate When There is No Will?

The UK's Intestacy Rules Explained

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By Cai Bradley
Updated on Thursday 23 July 2020

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If you die without a will in the UK or with one that is considered legally invalid, the estate (everything left behind, from properties to cash savings) must be distributed in line with intestacy rules.

But what are the rules of intestacy and who inherits if there is no will in place? Our guide explains all.

The rules of intestacy in the UK

Dying without a will – or dying intestate – means that everything you leave behind will be shared out in accordance with the rules of intestacy.

The rules of intestacy are a set of guidelines that essentially set out how an estate should be distributed if either the deceased has left no will, or the will is considered legally invalid.

Intestacy rules may not always represent the final wishes of the person who has passed away, which reiterates the importance of writing an accurate, legally valid will.

The inheritance will be distributed amongst allocated family members in a strict order, depending on what relatives you leave behind. The majority generally goes to a spouse or civil partner, but any unmarried partners will not receive anything. Who receives what is dependent on your personal situation and the surviving relatives’ relation to you.

Example 1: If you are married and your estate is worth under £270,000, your partner will inherit everything.

Example 2: If you are not married, have no children and your parents are still alive, the entire estate is split between the surviving parents.

The fact that a definitive answer can be given, regardless of the situation, is why the rules of intestacy are in place, but it can sometimes cause disputes under more complex circumstances, as step-children and unmarried partners are not entitled to anything.

The inheritance rights of spouses and civil partners

Partners are only able to inherit under the rules of intestacy if they are married or in a civil partnership at the time of death. Divorcees and partners who only live together do not qualify, while partners who have separated informally are still able to inherit.

If the person who dies leaves behind surviving children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, and the estate is valued at more than £270,000, the spouse or civil partner will receive: all personal property and possessions, the first £270,000 of the estate, and half of the remaining estate.

Note: If the property is valued at less than £270,000, the spouse will inherit it all.

If the individual has no children, the married or civil partner will be entitled to: all personal property and possessions, the entire estate with interest starting from the date of death.

Jointly owned property and death

Jointly owned property refers to all the assets that you share with your partner, including homes and bank accounts.

Shared homeownership

It’s common for couples to share the ownership of their home, so if either should pass away, the surviving partner may be able to inherit the property.

There are two types of joint ownership of a home: beneficial joint tenancies and tenancies in common.

If the couple were beneficial joint tenants, the surviving partner will automatically inherit the other half of the property. But, if they were tenants in common, the surviving partner does not automatically inherit their other half’s share.

If you find yourself in a predicament regarding a shared property following the death of a partner, you should seek professional legal advice from a solicitor.

What happens to a joint bank account after death?

If a couple has a joint bank account or building society account and one of them should pass away, the surviving partner will automatically inherit its entire contents.

Note: The assets and money that are inherited by a surviving partner do not count? towards the value of the estate when it is being valued for intestacy rules.

What are the inheritance rights of children?

If someone dies intestate and there is no surviving married or civil partner, the children of the deceased will automatically inherit the entire estate regardless of how much it is valued at. The estate will be split between each child equally if there are two or more of them.

But if there is a surviving partner that is eligible for automatic inheritance, the children will only receive some of the estate if it is worth over £270,000. Children from different relationships inherit equally, and if there are two or more children, they will inherit one half of the value of the estate above £270,000 in equal shares.

Along with biological children, adopted children are able to inherit under intestacy rules in the UK, but step-children are unfortunately not eligible unless they have been formally adopted.

To avoid giving young children thousands of pounds in inheritance before they understand its worth, children can only receive inheritance from the trustees when they reach the age of 18 or get married (or form a civil partnership).

Who cannot inherit the estate?

Under the rules of intestacy, there are some strict rules regarding who cannot inherit from the estate if someone dies without a will. The following people do not have the right to inherit from a person who died intestate:

  • Unmarried partners
  • Same-sex partners that are not in an official civil partnership
  • In-laws (relations by marriage)
  • Friends

If you are not eligible for inheritance under the rules of intestacy, you may be able to apply for financial provision from the estate using a solicitor.

Dying without any surviving relatives

If you die without any surviving relatives that qualify for inheritance under intestacy rules, the estate is passed on to the Crown – otherwise known as Bona Vacantia, which means vacant goods or ownerless property.

The Crown is able to make grants to friends or family that do not qualify for inheritance under intestacy rules, but does not have to agree to them. If you feel that you might deserve something from the estate, you should contact a solicitor to determine whether or not it might be worth applying for a grant.

Advice about wills and estate

We hope that our guide has helped you understand what happens if you die without a will, but be sure to take a look at our guide to wills, their benefits, and how to manage someone’s finances after death for more information.

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