Intestacy Rules in Washington State
What happens if you pass away without a will? Many people are disheartened to find out that, despite their best intentions, the state’s default rules may end up deciding who receives their property when they die. The rules of intestate succession are complicated and often not reflective of what the decedent would have wanted. Contact the experienced Washington estate planning firm of Gillin Law Group at (425) 947-1130 to learn more.
What Is Intestacy?
Intestacy is simply the legal term for what happens to someone’s property when they die without a will. Unlike a will, which allows the deceased to direct how their property is to be disposed of upon their death, intestacy rules are set by the state, so the deceased has no say in how their property is distributed. For many people, the idea of the state deciding who gets their hard-earned property after they die is devastating, which is why the intestacy rules are often the last resort.
Each state sets its own rules for intestate succession, and Washington is no different. This article will provide a brief overview of Washington’s rules for intestate succession, as well as a few tips on how to avoid it.
What Are the Rules in Washington?
Washington’s rules on intestate succession are similar to those in many other states, especially other community property states. The legislature tries to predict what a person would have wanted to do with their property, and based on a set formula, attempts to distribute the property to the closest relatives.
1. Surviving Spouse
Under Washington’s law of intestate succession, a surviving spouse or domestic partner receives the following from the decedent’s estate:
- All of the decedent’s share of the community estate; and
- One-half of the net separate estate if the decedent has surviving issue (i.e. children or grandchildren); or
- Three-quarters of the net separate estate if there are no surviving issue, but there are surviving parents or siblings; or
- All of the decedent’s separate estate if there are no surviving children, parents, or siblings
The goal of this statute is to ensure that a surviving spouse gets as much of the decedent’s remaining property as possible, but if there are surviving issue or parents or siblings, they are entitled to a small share of the decedent’s separate property as well.
Community property states treat property acquired during marriage as community property, while property acquired before the marriage or as a gift or inheritance during marriage is considered separate property. The rules of intestacy in Washington treat community and separate property separately. The surviving spouse is entitled to the decedent’s entire share of community property upon their death.
2. If There Is No Surviving Spouse
When there is no surviving spouse, the rules of intestate succession distribute the property as follows:
- The surviving issue take the entire estate in equal shares, if they are all in equal “degrees of kinship” (meaning that they are equally distantly related to the decedent)
- If there are no surviving issue, then the parents of the decedent take the entire estate
- If there are no surviving issue or parents, then to issue of the decedent’s parents (i.e. siblings, nieces, and nephews)
- If there are no issue, parents, siblings, nieces, or nephews, then the intestate estate goes to grandparents
- If no grandparents survive in this case, then the intestate estate will go to issue of grandparents (i.e. aunts, uncles, and cousins)
In the rare case that you have no immediate or distant relatives, the government may end receiving your property through “escheat,” which is an archaic term to describe when intestate property passes to the state.
Special Rules Pertaining to Children
Every family has unique situations. The rules of intestate succession try to address how certain family relations will impact who receives property from the decedent’s estate. Below are a few additional rules governing unique parent-child relationships:
- Adoption: Adopted children receive the same intestate share from their adoptive parents as a biological child would. However, adopted children do not inherit from their natural parents after their parental rights are terminated.
- Foster children and stepchildren: On the other hand, children who have not been legally adopted, like foster children and stepchildren, are not entitled to an intestate share.
- Posthumously-born children: When a child was conceived before their parent died, but was not yet born, the child is entitled to an intestate share as a biological child.
- Posthumously-conceived children: Conversely, a child who is conceived after the parent has died, such as through in vitro fertilization, is not entitled to an intestate share of their deceased parent’s estate.
- Paternity issues: In some cases, you may need to establish paternity to be entitled to a share of your deceased father’s estate. Children born outside of marriage are not presumed to be the child of their father; it must be separately established.
What Does Not Pass Through Intestate Succession?
Intestacy may not be the best way to reflect what a person wants to happen to their property upon their death. However, not everything in a person’s estate will pass through intestate succession when they die. An estate is divided into probate and non-probate property. Probate property is property that is owned solely by the decedent, and there are no beneficiaries named to receive that property upon death. Examples of probate property include solely owned real estate, cars, cash, and stocks. If probate property is not disposed of via will, this portion of the estate will pass by the default intestate rules.
Nonprobate property, on the other hand, includes any property that is jointly owned or has an intended beneficiary. Examples of nonprobate property include jointly-owned homes, shared bank accounts, and life insurance policies. These assets will pass to the co-owners or beneficiaries by operation of law when the decedent passes away. Consider speaking with an experienced Washington estates lawyer to understand what is included in your probate estate so you can properly plan to dispose of it in your estate plan.
Trust Gillin Law Group to Handle Your Estate Planning
If the intestate rules do not sound ideal to you, you are not alone. Many people would prefer to have a say in where their property goes after they die. Understanding all of the elements of your estate and creating a well-drafted will are critical elements of estate planning. Contact our experienced Washington estate planning firm to learn more about drafting a will and avoiding intestate succession.
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Resources on Wills & Trusts
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