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Who can inherit if there is no will – the rules of intestacy

What are the rules of intestacy

When a person dies without leaving a valid will, their property (the estate) must be shared out according to certain rules. These are called the rules of intestacy. A person who dies without leaving a will is called an intestate person.

Only married or civil partners and some other close relatives can inherit under the rules of intestacy.

If someone makes a will but it is not legally valid, the rules of intestacy decide how the estate will be shared out, not the wishes expressed in the will.

For more information about what is a valid will, see Wills.

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Married partners and civil partners

Married partners or civil partners inherit under the rules of intestacy only if they are actually married or in a civil partnership at the time of death. So if you are divorced or if your civil partnership has been legally ended, you can’t inherit under the rules of intestacy. But partners who separated informally can still inherit under the rules of intestacy.

If there are surviving children, grandchildren or great grandchildren of the person who died and the estate is valued at more than £250,000, the partner will inherit:

  • all the personal property and belongings of the person who has died, and
  • the first £250,000 of the estate, and
  • half of the remaining estate.
For example: Susan was in a civil partnership with Fang and they adopted a daughter called Jia. Susan died without leaving a will. Her estate is worth £450,000. After Fang inherits her share of £250,000, the estate that is left is worth £200,000. Fang can have half of this - £100,000.

If there are no surviving children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren, the partner will inherit:

  • all the personal property and belongings of the person who has died and
  • the whole of the estate with interest from the date of death.

Jointly-owned property

Couples may jointly own their home. There are two different ways of jointly owning a home. These are beneficial joint tenancies and tenancies in common.

If the partners were beneficial joint tenants at the time of the death, when the first partner dies, the surviving partner will automatically inherit the other partner's share of the property. However, if the partners are tenants in common, the surviving partner does not automatically inherit the other person's share.

For more information about beneficial joint tenancies and tenancies in common, see Buying with someone else in Buying a home.

Couples may also have joint bank or building society accounts. If one dies, the other partner will automatically inherit the whole of the money.

Property and money that the surviving partner inherits does not count as part of the estate of the person who has died when it is being valued for the intestacy rules.

Example: Tom and Heather are married and own their flat jointly as beneficial joint tenants. They have a child called Selma. Tom dies intestate leaving the jointly-owned flat worth £300,000, and £50,000 in shares in his own name. The flat goes automatically to Heather. This leaves an estate of £50,000 which also goes to Heather, as it is worth less than £250,000. Selma inherits nothing.

If Tom had owned the flat in his name alone, his estate would have been worth £350,000. It would be shared out according to the rules of intestacy, that is, Heather would get the first £250,000. This leaves an estate of £100,000. Heather would get £50,000 and Selma would get the remaining £50,000.

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Close relatives

Children

Children of the intestate person will inherit if there is no surviving married or civil partner. If there is a surviving partner, they will inherit only if the estate is worth more than a certain amount.

Children - if there is no surviving married or civil partner

If there is no surviving partner, the children of a person who has died without leaving a will inherit the whole estate. This applies however much the estate is worth. If there are two or more children, the estate will be divided equally between them.

Children - if there is a surviving partner

If there is a surviving partner, a child only inherits from the estate if the estate is valued at over £250,000. If there are two or more children, the children will inherit in equal shares:

  • one half of the value of the estate above £250,000.

All the children of the parent who has died intestate inherit equally from the estate. This also applies where a parent has children from different relationships.

For example: Alan and Grace were married and have two children, Tim and Annie. Alan and Grace get divorced. Alan then has a child, Mark, with his new partner Beata. Alan and Beata do not marry. Alan dies. Grace does not inherit under the intestacy rules because she is divorced from Alan and neither does Beata because she has not married Alan. Tim, Annie and Mark inherit all of Alan's estate in equal shares.

A child whose parents are not married or have not registered a civil partnership can inherit from the estate of a parent who dies intestate. These children can also inherit from grandparents or great-grandparents who have died intestate.

Adopted children (including step-children who have been adopted by their step-parent) have rights to inherit under the rules of intestacy. But otherwise you have to be a biological child to inherit.

Children do not receive their inheritance immediately. They receive it when they:

  • reach the age of 18, or
  • marry or form a civil partnership under this age.

Until then, trustees manage the inheritance on their behalf.

Grandchildren and great grandchildren

A grandchild or great grandchild cannot inherit from the estate of an intestate person unless either:

  • their parent or grandparent has died before the intestate person, or
  • their parent is alive when the intestate person dies but dies before reaching the age of 18 without having married or formed a civil partnership

In these circumstances, the grandchildren and great grandchildren will inherit equal shares of the share to which their parent or grandparent would have been entitled.

Example: Abdul has two sons, Iqbal and Ismail. Ismail has one daughter, Habiba. Ismail dies when Habiba is two years old. Abdul dies intestate when she is 20. Habiba inherits Ismail's share of Abdul's estate.

Other close relatives

Parents, brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews of the intestate person may inherit under the rules of intestacy. This will depend on a number of circumstances:

  • whether there is a surviving married or civil partner
  • whether there are children, grandchildren or great grandchildren.
  • in the case of nephews and nieces, whether the parent directly related to the person who has died is also dead
  • the amount of the estate.

Other relatives may a right to inherit if the person who died intestate had no surviving married partner or civil partner, children, grandchildren, great grand-children, parents, brothers, sisters, nephews or nieces. The order of priority amongst other relatives is as follows:-

  • grandparents
  • uncles and aunts. A cousin can inherit instead if the uncle or aunt who would have inherited died before the intestate person
  • half-uncles and half-aunts. A half-cousin can inherit instead if the half-uncle or half-aunt who would have inherited died before the intestate person.

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Who cannot inherit

The following people have no right to inherit where someone dies without leaving a will:

  • unmarried partners
  • lesbian or gay partners not in a civil partnership
  • relations by marriage
  • close friends
  • carers.

However, even if you can't inherit under the rules of intestacy, you may be able to apply to court for financial provision from the estate.

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If there are no surviving relatives

If there are no surviving relatives who can inherit under the rules of intestacy, the estate passes to the Crown. This is known as bona vacantia. The Treasury Solicitor is then responsible for dealing with the estate. The Crown can make grants from the estate but does not have to agree to them.

If you are not a surviving relative, but you believe you have a good reason to apply for a grant, you will need legal advice.

For more information about bona vacantia go to the GOV.UK website at www.gov.uk.

For more information about getting legal advice, see Using a solicitor.

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Rearranging the way the estate is shared out

It is possible to rearrange the way property is shared out when someone dies without leaving a will, provided this is done within two years of the death. This is called making a deed of family arrangement or variation. All the people who would inherit under the rules of intestacy must agree.

If they agree, the property can be shared out in a different way so that people who do not inherit under the intestacy rules can still get some of the estate. Or they could agree that the amount that people get is different to the amount they would get under the rules of intestacy.

If you think that the way the estate is shared out should be rearranged, you will need legal advice. You may get legal aid.

For more information about getting legal advice, see Using a solicitor.

For more information about legal aid, see Help with legal costs.

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Applying for financial help

You may be able to apply to court for reasonable financial help from the estate of the person who has died intestate. For example, if you were living with the person who has died but you were not married to them, you would not inherit under the rules of intestacy. However, you could apply to court for financial help. You must have lived with them for at least two years immediately before their death. Another example is if you were always treated by the person who died as a child of the family. You would not inherit under the rules of intestacy but you could apply to the court for financial help.

You must make the application within a certain time limit although in some circumstances this can be extended.

The court may order:

  • regular payments from the estate
  • a lump sum payment from the estate
  • property to be transferred from the estate.

If you want to apply to the court for financial help, you will need legal advice.

For more information about getting legal advice, see Using a solicitor.

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Rejecting your inheritance

If you reject your inheritance, known as disclaiming it, there are special rules about who can inherit. You should seek advice about this.

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Further help

Cruse Bereavement Care supports people who are bereaved and produces useful information and advice. Go to their website at: www.crusebereavementcare.org.uk. Their helpline is: 0844 477 9400.

The GOV.UK website includes more information about what happens if someone dies without leaving a will. Go to www.gov.uk.

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Citizens Advice

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