Rules of intestacy – what to do when there’s no will

If someone dies and hasn’t left a will, the law sets out who may inherit in the Rules of Intestacy.

What will happen is determined by both the value of the estate and the relationships of surviving family members. No-one can inherit if they were not in a formal legal relationship with the person who died, either through marriage or civil partnership, or by being a blood relation.

The term ‘common-law husband or wife’ is often used in this instance, but this does not exist in law so unmarried partners do not inherit from their partner who has died. It would be helpful to take legal advice because the situation may be complicated by assets that were owned jointly.

If an estate is valued at less than £270,000, a surviving spouse or civil partner will inherit the entire estate, provided they live for longer than 28 days after the death of the person who has died intestate. If, for example, a wife dies just three weeks after her husband, the Rules of Intestacy state that his estate passes to his children or other relatives under the order of priority set by the rules. This happens regardless of whether the wife has made a will, which becomes irrelevant.

For estates over £270,000 the position becomes more complex with the estate divided between a surviving spouse or civil partner, and the children of the person who died. Stepchildren have no entitlement and neither does anyone else whose relationship to the person who died is by marriage. Adopted children have full rights equal to those with a blood relationship to the person who died.

If children are entitled to inherit under the Rules of Intestacy, and one of the entitled children has died before the current death, their share passes to their descendants, if any. This applies to every level of entitled relatives.