Dying without a will is called dying intestate. In North Carolina, as in most states, this means that the deceased person’s property and assets will be handled through what is called the probate process. In the probate process, a court will determine what property and assets go to whom, based on the intestacy laws of succession. This usually means that the deceased’s estate will be divided among family members, whether or not that was what the deceased person wished to have happen.

What Happens in Probate?

The probate process is administered by the Office of the Clerk of Superior Court in the county where the deceased person had resided before they died, and the Clerk of Superior Court takes the role of judge. The Clerk will appoint an administrator to administer the estate. Administering the estate includes gathering all of the parts of the estate and determining their value, paying any debts or obligations, and distributing the remainder to the heirs. Without a will, the administrator will follow the North Carolina Intestate Succession Act, which has a protocol to follow for distributing assets when there is no will.

Wouldn’t a Spouse Get Everything if There is No Will?

Most people assume that if they die without a will in place, their spouse will inherit everything. This is not necessarily the case. If you die without a will, the probate court will distribute your assets according to the rules of intestate succession, which specify that your children or your parents will inherit part of your estate, after only a portion of it has gone to your spouse. The only way your spouse will inherit everything if you die without a will is if you have no living parents or children. For example, if you have any number of children and a spouse, your spouse will inherit the first $30,000 of your property and solely-owned real estate, and the rest will be split evenly between your spouse and your children. If you have no children, your spouse will get the first $50,000 of the estate, but the remainder, including any real estate that was not jointly owned with your spouse, will be split evenly with your parents.

Are All Property and Assets Subject to Probate if I Die Without a Will?

Some assets with named beneficiaries, such as life insurance or retirement funds, are not subject to probate but will be distributed to the named beneficiaries. Any property you owned jointly with someone else will go directly to the other owner should you die, whether you have a will or not. Only property or assets that are not jointly held and that do not have an already-named beneficiary will go through probate.

Why is It Important to Have a Will?

Dying without a will means that you have no control over who inherits your property and assets. You may not want certain family members to inherit from you, or you may want everything to go to your spouse. Without a will this is not guaranteed. A will allows you to ensure that you get to choose the person who will be in charge of administering your estate, and you get to choose where your hard-earned assets and property will go.