What Happens if You Die Without a Will in New York?


Dying without a valid will in place can create major complications for your loved ones. Without clear instructions on how you want your assets distributed, the probate court steps in after your death and makes these decisions for you, following New York’s intestacy laws.

While the court does its best to distribute your assets fairly according to state law, having a will allows you to decide exactly how your estate is divided. It also lets you name an executor to oversee the probate process. Dying intestate (without a will) means giving up control over what happens to your property when you’re gone.

How Probate Works Without a Will in New York

When someone dies without a valid will in New York, their estate still has to go through probate court to get distributed. This court-supervised process ensures assets get transferred to the right heirs according to state law.

Here’s an overview of how the probate process works without a will:

  • The court appoints an estate administrator. This personal representative handles probate just as an executor would if there was a will. Priority goes to a surviving spouse, then adult children, parents, and so on.

  • The administrator inventories assets and debts. They must track down and secure all property — real estate, accounts, vehicles, etc. — and identify any outstanding debts.

  • A Notice to Creditors is published. This gives debtors a chance to make claims against the estate.

  • The administrator pays valid debts and taxes. Any remaining assets are distributed to heirs according to intestacy laws.

  • The court approves the final asset distribution. Before closing probate, the court must ensure distribution follows New York intestacy rules.

Having a will helps streamline this entire process, naming an executor you trust and stating exactly how you want assets divided. It also lets you minimize estate taxes to transfer more wealth to beneficiaries.

Who Inherits Your Property If You Die Without a Will in New York?

New York intestacy law lays out specific rules for how assets are distributed when someone dies without a will. Assets pass first to immediate family — a spouse and children — then to more distant relatives if no spouse/children exist.

Here is an overview of New York’s inheritance order for those who die intestate:

  • If married with no children: The surviving spouse inherits the entire estate

  • If married with children: Spouse inherits first $50k, then splits remainder with children

  • If unmarried with children: Children split the estate equally. Grandchildren can inherit their parents’ share if they are deceased.

  • If no spouse or children: Estate passes to parents if living, otherwise to siblings/nieces & nephews.

  • No heirs: Estate goes to New York State

The specifics get more complex, but in general, your assets will stay in the family. Having a will gives you total control over the distribution and allows gifts to friends or charities.

What Happens to Specific Assets Like Your House?

Some assets that have a named beneficiary or co-owner may bypass probate and intestacy laws. Here are some examples of common asset types:

  • Joint bank accounts: Transfer to surviving co-owner immediately

  • Life insurance policies: Paid out to named beneficiary directly

  • Retirement accounts: Go to account beneficiary, spouse has rights in some cases

  • House with only your name: Transfers according to will or intestacy laws

  • House jointly owned: Passes to surviving co-owner outside of probate

Having a will ensures your home and any other individually-owned property is handled as you wish. Make sure also to review co-owners and beneficiaries on accounts to ensure your overall plan aligns with your intentions.

When the State Can Claim Your Estate

If you die with no identifiable living family members, New York law states that your assets go to the state through a process called escheatment. The state will hold your estate indefinitely, waiting for a rightful heir to make a valid claim on the assets.

To claim inherited funds from the state, an heir has to provide extensive documentation proving their relation to you. This can be a lengthy and difficult process.

Even distant relatives like cousins or great-aunts/uncles have a stronger inheritance claim than the state. So, if you don’t have immediate family, be sure to include more distant relatives or trusted friends in your will to prevent the state from claiming your estate.

Don’t Leave Your Family’s Future Uncertain

Losing a loved one is painful enough without the added stress of legal confusion. Intestate disputes can fracture families. Creditors may come collecting. The state may claim your hard-earned assets.

You can protect your loved ones from uncertainty by working with The Browne Firm in New York to put a sound estate plan in place today.

Their experienced estate planning lawyers make the process easy. They help you understand your options, create customized documents that express your wishes, and ensure everything is legally binding.