intestate defined in the dictionaryAlmost everyone knows that a will is an important part of an estate plan. Even so, you might be surprised to learn that a great many Missourians don’t make any special preparations for their own death. They may believe that their relatives will amicably distribute their possessions or that our state’s courts will help resolve any disputes.

If you own a house, a car, or hold any sort of financial accounts, there’s a good chance your loved ones will want to know who gets what. Under ordinary circumstances, a simple will dictates your desires. Without a will, though, your power to decide who should get what passes from your control—and your family’s.

Missouri Intestate Laws

Here in Missouri, somebody who dies without a will is said to have died “intestate.”

Most states, including ours, have very particular procedures on how to handle the assets of anyone who has died intestate. In general, your assets will be passed on to your closest living relatives. There is a specific, somewhat complex formula for determining priority. Let’s say that:

  • You leave behind children but no spouse. In this case, your children would take equitable shares of your remaining estate
  • You leave behind a spouse but no children. In this case, your spouse gets everything
  • You leave behind a spouse and children. In this case, your spouse gets $20,000 of value from your intestate property. Your spouse and children will split the remainder, fifty-fifty

There are other rules and exceptions, depending on your family situation. If you weren’t married and never had children and your parents are still living, they could inherit everything—even if they don’t need or can’t use the money. There are other instances in which your siblings could take control of your assets. In very rare cases, if you have no close living descendants, your possessions may be passed off to distant relatives. And if Missouri can’t find any relatives at all, then the state inherits the estate.

So if you die without a will, remember: you won’t get to decide who gets what—the court has a formula, and the court will stick to that formula.

Some Assets Aren’t Affected by Probate

Do bear in mind that there are certain types of property and assets that are generally off-limits to probate. They include, but are not limited to:

  • Assets and accounts that are held or registered under a transfer-upon-death arrangement
  • Real estate that’s held in joint-tenancy, or which has a transfer-upon-death deed
  • Assets held in trust

Even if you have a will, tools like living trusts can help you help your loved ones avoid unpleasant probate proceedings. In many cases, trusts can also relieve certain tax obligations.

A will, then, is important not only for deciding who gets what but also for assuring your family that they won’t have to fight for their fair share in court.

However, wills are imperfect documents: your properties may still have to pass through probate even if you name an heir, and there’s a chance any outstanding creditors may be able to stake a claim on certain assets.

Other Options, Like Trusts, Give You More Control

While you really should have a will, other legal instruments—like living trusts—give you more room to avoid probate. They also let you place certain conditions on the use or disbursement of assets. Furthermore, trusts have the benefit of being manageable while you’re still alive, allowing you to name, strike, or add beneficiaries as you see fit.

Contact Our Estate Planning and Probate Attorneys Today

From our Cape Girardeau and Perryville offices, the team at Layton & Southard serves clients throughout Southeast Missouri and Southern Illinois. Please contact us online or call our Cape Girardeau office directly at 573.335.3359 to schedule your initial consultation.

Megan D. Andrews
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