“What happens if someone dies without a will?”

That is a common question we hear at Lyons | Sullivan. It’s a strange phenomenon that people worry about what will happen to their estate and assets after their death but then continue to postpone drawing up a will. It is a good idea to meet with an attorney and have a will drawn up no matter your age, financial, or health status. Being prepared can only ever be beneficial to you and your loved ones.

But what exactly does happen if someone were to pass away without a valid will? Let’s take a look.


In Washington, a person who dies without a will is considered “intestate,” a word that simply means “without a will.” A commonly held assumption is that when an individual dies intestate his/her assets and property are distributed to the state. In Washington, this isn’t the case. In these scenarios, assets are distributed to the appropriate parties as determined by state law.

It is worth noting that only assets that would normally be included in a will are subject to distribution in this manner. Assets such as life insurance proceeds, retirement funds such as a 401(k), property owned with joint tenancy, etc. are not affected by intestate succession laws.

Intestate Succession Process

The process of asset distribution in instances of intestate death does not differ greatly from regular succession processes. After the passing, all of an individual’s assets must be gathered and handed over to the hands of the lawful successors or to a court-appointed administrator. Once that has been done, all creditors must be paid through various means. It is at this point that the remaining assets are distributed accordingly.


Asset distribution in intestate deaths depends on who survives the decedent. If there is a surviving spouse, assets are distributed in the following manner:

  • Surviving spouses are entitled to inherit all assets if the decedent has no children, parents, or siblings.
  • Surviving spouses are entitled to all community property and one-half of separate property; the remaining half is granted to surviving children.
  • Spouses are entitled to all community property and three-fourths of separate property; the remaining one-fourth is entitled to surviving parents or siblings.

If no spouse survives the decedent, property then is distributed to:

  • Surviving children
  • Surviving parents
  • If the decedent is not survived by any parents, assets are then granted accordingly to surviving siblings and possibly to nieces and nephews by extension.
  • If the decedent has no surviving parents or siblings, succession is then granted to surviving grandparents.
  • In the event the decedent is not survived by any of the above, assets would then be distributed to the descendents of the deceased’s grandparents (cousins of the deceased).
  • If the decedent has no surviving family, assets then pass to the State of Washington.

Should you die without a will, Washington State law is designed to ensure that assets are handed over to appropriate parties, but complications will inevitably arise. Circumstances that involve adopted children or great-grandchildren, foster or stepchildren, stepparents, multiple marriages–there is no limit to the number of ways succession processes can be complicated. The best way to ensure that your family is taken care of after your death, is to prepare now. Contact Lyons | Sullivan today, and let us help you achieve peace of mind.