What happens when a person dies without a will?

On Behalf of | Jul 15, 2021 | Estate Planning |

We never know when we’ll be gone, so we need to look ahead and create our wills for when that moment arrives. However, some people put off creating a will for so long that they die without one. In that case, the state of New Jersey will handle asset distribution instead of it being a personal choice.

Intestate succession

People who die without a will are said to die “intestate.” That means that the state will distribute property to the deceased’s family members according to statutory guidelines. The laws in New Jersey specify that the person’s estate will be distributed in the following order of priority:

  1. To the person’s spouse or partner
  2. To the person’s descendants (by birth or adoption)
  3. To the person’s parents or siblings
  4. To the person’s grandparents or their descendants
  5. To the person’s stepchildren or “descendants by representation”

If no heirs exist, then the state will take the property. This is not common; before the state takes the property, it will try to give assets to anyone related to the deceased person.


If the deceased person died intestate with a living spouse, that spouse usually gets the inheritance. However, this can change if the person’s parents are also still alive or if the spouse had children of their own that were not the deceased’s descendants. The distribution also changes if the person had descendants of their own – such as children from a prior marriage – that were not the living spouse’s descendants.

The importance of a will

Just because a person dies without a will does not mean that their family won’t get their inheritance. However, a person can specify distribution among their family members in a will, leaving a higher portion of assets to one family member or another. Ultimately, making a will is faster and more effective than dying intestate. No matter how far away our deaths seem, we should always take some time to plan ahead and create an estate plan.