By Michelle Chapman, associate and Alice Jeavons, paralegal in the Will, Trust and Estate Disputes team
It might be reasonable to assume that if someone has died without a will, then their assets would not be disbursed. However, that is not the case and a recent article has identified a number of estates which have so far been unclaimed as their owners have died without leaving a will.
If someone dies without leaving a will, they are known as dying intestate. The intestacy rules are governed principally in Parts 3 and 4 of the Administration of Estates Act 1925 and determine how a person’s estate is administered and distributed if they have died intestate. The general purpose of the law is to disburse a person’s estate to people they are most closely related to however, unfortunately, it does not recognise relationship breakdowns, cohabiting but unmarried couples or blended families (such as step children).
If a person dies intestate and they have a spouse/civil partner and no children, the spouse/civil partner will inherit the whole estate providing they survive the deceased by 28 days. If the intestate has a spouse/civil partner and children, the spouse/civil partner would receive the intestate’s personal chattels (i.e. personal belongings) and a legacy of the first £270,000 of the estate. If there is any estate remaining after the legacy, this will be known as the residuary estate and will be split equally between the spouse/civil partner and the children. If there is more than one child, the children’s share of the residuary estate will be shared equally between them. Children under the age of 18 will not automatically receive their inheritance immediately; it will be held on trust for them until they attain the age of 18.
Following the spouse/civil partner and the children, the order of entitlement for persons to inherit an intestate estate are as follows: parents, whole blood siblings, half-blood siblings, grandparents, whole blood aunts and uncles and half-blood aunts and uncles. If there are no relatives then the estate will eventually be distributed to the Crown but only after the estate has been listed on the Bona Vacantia List for 12 years from the date that the estate has been administered (so usually between 12-14 years from the date of death). The exception is for unclaimed estates pre-1997, whereby the Bona Vancantia division will accept claims within 30 years from the date of death. If people are interested to see if any names on the list are familiar, then they can check on the government website here.
Unfortunately, the rules of intestacy do not make provision for cohabitees, step-children or step-parents and therefore if a person dies intestate they will not automatically be entitled to inherit. The law also does not consider that married persons may be separated but not divorced, thus leaving a spouse/civil partner entitled to inherit despite the relationship breaking down. In these situations it is always recommended to seek legal advice. If a person dies intestate and the rules of intestacy do not recognise someone who believes they should have been entitled to an inheritance from the estate, they may be able to apply to the Court for reasonable financial provision if they are able to show they were maintained by the deceased before their death. However, there is a 6 month time limit to bring this type of claim from when the Letters of Administration has been extracted.
Lastly, it should be noted that the intestacy rules do not only apply if someone has died without leaving a will. A person can die intestate if they made a will which is now invalid, has been destroyed or has been revoked. A will can also be partly intestate, for example if the deceased has left a sum of money to a person who predeceased them, the will may still be valid but the gift will be intestate and will follow the intestacy rules.