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How to Transfer Property After Death Without Will

Posted on by Dawna M. Roberts in LawOctober 21, 2022

Unless a family has gone through a member’s death before, there’s very little chance anyone will anticipate the process. Not only are there seemingly endless barriers, but there is also little guidance unless deliberately searched out. The whole process can turn an emotional situation into a traumatic experience. The chaos increases dramatically for the family members of those who do not have wills or plans after death. 

What Happens After an Estate Owner Dies? 

transfer of property after death without will

After a person dies, their estate (i.e., property, assets, accounts) enters a process called “probate.” Probate is the legal procedure that sorts out who gets what from an estate. The method is fastest when the deceased create a will or trust ahead of time. Those who pass away without an established will or estate plan allow the courts to handle the process. 

When a property enters probate, a sequence of events is generally universal (below). Some of these events may differ or occur in a different order; there may be additional steps in your local area. It will help to get further assistance in your local area. Some locations may also offer free probate, counseling, or financial aid. Additionally, pieces of an estate can avoid probate proceedings. 

The first step in the probate process is the selection of an Executor or a Personal Representative. If there were after-life plans already created and are still valid, whoever is named the Executor can begin the process. Alternatively, those who have passed away without a will or trust will have a Personal Representative; these are typically individuals who are next of kin. 

It is the job of the Executor or Personal Representative to first inform any beneficiaries and creditors of the passing. Telling family members will not be easy for anyone who has recently lost a loved one; however, the process can be a little easier for those who have notarized a will or trust beforehand. Further, those with extensive debts or financial accounts may run into a lot of work finding all creditors. 

After informing beneficiaries and creditors, the estate gets an assessment by a professional or Personal Representative. The property assessment is an important step of the after-life process because it will expose all assets of value. Determining these overall values is necessary before starting to pay back debts, which is the next step. 

Executors and Personal Representatives then pay all fees and debts of the deceased with the money from the estate. To many, this is the most critical step of the process, as some debtors may go after surviving family members to recoup funds otherwise. Additionally, things like monthly paid services need notification, or they will continue services and billing. 

Only after paying back all debts can the Executor or Personal Representative distribute the remaining assets of a property. Executors will likely find this easy, as the distribution should reflect the wishes in the will. Personal Representatives may find this process harder when the family enters the conversation; they should consider speaking with professionals about how to parse assets with limited family fighting.

The probate process for those who previously set up a will lasts between six to nine months; those without wills can last years. The process up to this point hasn't even included things like wait periods, the death certificate process, or court proceedings. As anyone can imagine, all these steps become infinitely more complicated without a will to assist.

Transferring property after death without a will is one of the tasks that can become infinitely harder. Wills or property agreements can transfer property owned by the deceased to valid parties if they meet the guidelines:

Transferring Property if You Have Joint Ownership

This property arrangement is called a “joint tenancy with the right of survivorship.” Property records must show both parties listed to be valid for property agreements. When the owner of a jointly owned property passes away, the surviving owner receives the entire property. 

The process is straightforward in most states. Property records will indicate the correct parties. However, in some states like California and Texas, the right to this arrangement can be contested by an heir. Additionally, those on property records as tenants have exception rights to the joint tenancy agreement above. In many states, tenants with “tenancy in common” arrangements would be entitled to their portion of the estate or property. 

Transferring Property if You Have Sole Ownership

If the deceased is the only owner on the property records, the estate distribution will become more challenging. All assets are subject to property laws, which vary across state lines; these laws determine who gets the assets after repaying all debts. After finding the correct beneficiary, ownership of the estate will transfer to this person. Additionally, any of these parties may also contest the deceased’s will. These laws are also called “intestate succession laws” and are typically in the following order: 

  • Spouse
  • Children 
  • Parents 
  • Siblings
  • Next of kin

If no next of kin is found, the state absorbs the estate. No next of kin means the property is sold in its entirety to another party. Neighborhood properties tend to be put up for state-sponsored auctions or other state-sold housing opportunities. 

Transferring Property if You Have No Heirs

Courts will examine property law to determine the beneficiary when a property owner passes away with no heirs. All the assets and estate will pass through the probate courts. These same courts will also contact the beneficiary, usually the closest next of kin. The entire estate will pass into state possession if there are no living relatives and no will or trust. 

The Transfer of Property After Death Without Will Can be Complex; Getting Assistance Helps

Struggling with the death of a relative is hard enough without dealing with the vultures that come after. Creating a will can promise a straightforward path for your family if something happens. Getting assistance from professionals will help guide the bereaved during one of the darkest parts of their life. 

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