What Happens if Someone Dies Without a Will in the UK?


Writing a will is the most reliable way of making sure that all of your assets are distributed to the right people in a way that represents your final wishes. But what happens if you die without a will?

Dying without a will – or dying intestate – means that your estate (including all of your valuable possessions, properties, money, etc.) will be distributed in line with the rules of intestacy. But what do the intestacy rules consist of and who has the right to inherit what under those rules? 

Here’s our guide to what happens if someone dies without a will – or with one that is not legally valid – and how the estate is shared amongst family members.

If you want control over how your estate is managed after your death, write a will with Unite Wills today.


What are the rules of intestacy?

The rules of intestacy are a set of strict rules regarding the distribution of an estate that must be followed if an individual dies without a legally valid will

These rules may not always represent the true wishes and preferences of the deceased and can cause disputes between loved ones under more complex circumstances, where step-children and non-married partners are involved, for example.

To give themselves peace of mind in knowing that their estate will not be subject to the rules of intestacy when they die, many people write a will, but some may not do so in time.

The estate of someone who dies intestate is distributed in a strict order, with the surviving married or civil partner having priority over other family members or loved ones.

Generally speaking, the married or civil partner of the deceased is first in-line to the inheritance, followed by children, parents, siblings, nieces and nephews, grandparents, and then aunties and uncles. If none of which are alive, the entire estate is handed over to the Crown.


Does a spouse automatically inherit everything?

Partners are only eligible to an inheritance through intestacy rules if they are married to or in a civil partnership with the deceased at the time of death. Other than that – i.e. if you’re divorced or an unmarried partner – you do not qualify for inheritance under intestacy rules and would therefore need to get in touch with a solicitor if you feel you should receive some of the estate.

Those who have separated informally are still considered a married couple in the eyes of the intestacy rules and are still entitled to the estate.

If the deceased has no surviving children, the spouse or civil partner is entitled to all personal assets and the entire estate with interest from the date of the death. 

If the deceased has surviving children (or grandchildren) and the estate is valued at over £270,000, the married or civil partner would be entitled to all personal assets, the first £270,000 of the estate and half of the remaining amount, with the other half being inherited by the children. If the estate is worth less than £250,000, the partner will receive it all and the children will not be entitled to any direct inheritance.

So, in summary, the spouse or civil partner inherits all of the estate of their partner if:

  • There are no surviving children
  • There are surviving children but the estate is worth less than £270,000


The inheritance of jointly owned property after death

When you agree to spend the rest of your life with someone, you will naturally be inclined to share property and assets, including homes and money. But what happens to the shared property when one of the partners passes away?


How intestacy rules work in relation to shared homeownership

Many couples share homeownership, and there are two ways of doing so: beneficial joint tenancies and tenancies in common.

If a couple were beneficial joint tenants, the surviving partner is able to inherit the other partner’s share of the property automatically if intestacy rules are implemented.

If a couple were tenants in common, the surviving partner does not automatically receive the other share.


Joint bank accounts on the death of one member in the UK

Couples often have a joint bank account, but if one member dies without a will, the surviving partner inherits the entire value of it. 

Keep in mind that the value of the assets and money that the surviving partner inherits will not count towards the total value of the estate.


The inheritance rights of children

Intestacy rules mean that the children of the deceased inherit the entire estate if there is no surviving married or civil partner, but if there is a surviving partner, the children will only receive some of it.

If there is no surviving partner, the children of the person who has died will inherit the entire estate equally, regardless of how much it’s worth.

If there is a surviving partner, the children of the deceased will only inherit if the estate is valued at over £270,000 in total. If the estate is worth more than £270,000, the children will inherit half of the value of the estate above £270,000. For example, if the estate is worth £350,000, the children will be entitled to inherit £40,000 between them.

If the estate is worth less than £270,000 and there is a surviving partner, the children get no direct inheritance and it goes to the partner of the deceased. 

All children of the person who has died will be entitled to inherit equally, including those from previous relationships. Adopted children also qualify for inheritance under intestacy rules in the UK, but step-children do not unless they have been formally adopted. 

Children are not able to get their hands on the inheritance until either they turn 18 or they marry or form a civil partnership, depending on which comes first. Until that time comes, the inheritance is managed by the trustees on their behalf.


Who misses out on inheritance under intestacy rules?

The following people do not qualify for inheritance under the rules of intestacy in the UK: 

  • Partners that are not married or in a civil partnership
  • Step-children (unless they’re formally adopted)
  • Friends
  • In-laws
  • Same-sex partners outside of a civil partnership

Your situation may mean that you want step-children, friends or an unmarried partner to inherit some of your estate, and if so, the only way to get it to them securely is by creating a legally valid will. 


When does your estate go to the Crown?

If you die intestate and there are no surviving relatives to inherit your estate, it will be handed over to the Crown in its entirety. This is also known as Bona Vacantia, which essentially means that it is ownerless property. 

If you feel that you should have the right to some inheritance from someone whose estate has been passed to the Crown, it is possible to apply for a grant from them. The Crown doesn’t have to accept these requests, but if you feel that you have good reason to apply for one, then you should seek legal advice. 


Writing a will and avoiding the rules of intestacy

To stop your estate being handed over to the Crown or being distributed in a way that does not reflect your wishes, you must have a will in place. 

Here at Unite Wills, Unite the Union members can get a free basic will written online in just three easy steps.   

We also work with trained solicitors to provide you with a range of services, from setting up a lasting power of attorney to storing your will in a professional storage facility.