If you die without a will, you are said to have died intestate. The word "intestate" is derived from the prefix "In" (meaning "not") plus the word "testatus" or "testate" (meaning "to make a will"). Today, all fifty states have laws that spell out how property is to be distributed when a person dies intestate; i.e., without a valid will. These laws are generally referred to as the "laws of intestate succession." In some cases, however, they are referred to as the "laws of descent and distribution," or simply as "intestacy laws."
Click on any state to view its intestacy laws
In modern usage, the word "intestate" or "intestacy" applies to any portion of your probate property (or probate estate") that is not effectively disposed of by a valid will. Keep in mind that your probate estate will only consist of property that is solely-owned by you at the time of your death. It does not include property that you and someone else own jointly with rights of survivorship, nor does it include any life insurance, annuities, or retirement plans in which you have designated a beneficiary, or any property that you own in a living trust. For more detailed information as to the types of property that become part of your probate estate, see How Property Passes Upon Death.
Even if you have a will, it is possible that some or all of your probate estate may be treated as intestate property. If, for example, your will is not admitted to probate because you didn't sign it, or because it wasn't properly witnessed, or because it was made while you were under the undue influence of some other person, or because you were not legally competent to make a will, then your will may be declared invalid. In that case, you may be deemed to have died intestate and all of your probate property would be treated as intestate property.
In certain cases, too, it's possible that your will may be admitted to probate but one or more provisions may be deemed invalid, either because those provisions were found to be the product of undue influence or because the beneficiaries named therein contested your will or were witnesses to the signing of your will. In any of those cases, you may be deemed to have died intestate with respect to the property disposed of by the invalid provisions of your will, and that property would be treated as intestate property.
Intestate property, by definition, does not have a designated beneficiary, which makes it very difficult for anyone to determine who the rightful beneficiaries should be. Contrary to popular belief, however, no state wants to keep your property if you die intestate. In fact, each state has developed a set of laws that give your intestate property to those individuals who are most likely to be the "objects of your bounty." Of course, these laws are designed to accomodate the interests of all people residing within a state and, for that reason, may not be exactly what any one individual may want. These laws are known as "intestacy laws." In some cases, these intestacy laws may be called the "laws of descent and distribution" or the "laws of intestate succession."
Although the intestacy laws or laws of intestate succession are quite similar from state to state, there are important differences, too. To find how a particular state distributes intestate property, click on that state from the map above to view its intestacy laws or laws of intestate succession.