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What happens if someone doesn't leave a valid will?

Many people know that estate planning is an important issue that needs to be addressed, but they still ignore it. Many people don't realize that even if they continue to avoid the need to create a will, state law will step in to fill the void. And they may not like the result.

When a person dies without a will -- in legal terms, when he or she dies intestate -- Florida's law of intestate succession determines who will inherit from the person's estate. A court will determine the person's heirs according to pre-existing guidelines. Essentially, this means looking at the deceased person's family tree and distributing assets to the closest relatives, as determined by a ranking system.

The estate goes first to those closest to the decedent: the spouse and children. If there is no surviving child, the entire estate goes to the spouse. If there is no surviving spouse, the entire estate goes to the deceased person's children. If there is no surviving spouse and no surviving children, the estate will go to other surviving relatives.

The rules of intestate succession make some accommodations for situations in which, say, a surviving spouse is not the mother of the deceased person's children. However, the rules are quite complicated and they can lead to results where a distant relative who hardly knew the deceased ends up inheriting some or even all of the estate while close friends are left with nothing.

The whole process must be administered by a probate court, and it can be time-consuming and expensive. The money to pay for the process comes out of the estate, meaning that the heirs will receive less than they otherwise would have, had the deceased prepared a will.

A qualified lawyer can help with wills, trusts and other tools of estate planning. An estate plan can consist of a relatively simple will or a complex trust, but everyone should have some sort of plan.

Source: leg.state.fl.us, "PROBATE CODE: INTESTATE SUCCESSION AND WILLS," Accessed Feb. 19, 2017

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