If a person in the UK passes away without a will, the “intestacy rules” determine who inherits the estate. This article explains how these rules work, who the beneficiaries are, and the order in which they’ll receive assets, offering clarity for anyone facing the practical realities of intestacy.

Key Takeaways

  • Intestacy occurs when a person dies without a legally valid will. Their estate is then distributed according to predefined rules, with priority given to spouses/civil partners and children.

  • The rules of intestacy define a hierarchy for inheritance and specify procedures for administering an estate, including appointing a personal representative to handle assets, debts, and distribution according to law.

  • Cohabiting partners and unmarried couples do not have automatic inheritance rights under intestacy rules. Joint assets may be treated differently depending on the type of ownership, and deeds of family arrangement can alter the distribution of an estate.

Understanding Intestacy: When There’s No Valid Will

Illustration of a person signing a will document

Intestacy is a term you might stumble upon when dealing with inheritance matters. But what does it mean? Intestacy arises when a person dies without leaving behind a valid will. This could happen if someone made a will that is not legally valid, leading to the estate being shared based on the rules of intestacy rather than the wishes expressed in the invalid will.

Creating a valid will is crucial to ensure your estate is distributed according to your wishes rather than the intestacy rules. If you die without a will, you are deemed to have died ‘intestate’, and your assets must be distributed according to specific rules of intestacy. These rules require the appointment of personal representatives responsible for administering the estate.

The Hierarchy of Inheritance Under UK Intestacy Rules

Illustration of family members discussing inheritance

As you may have guessed, the distribution of assets when a person dies intestate is not random. The intestacy rules have a well-defined order of priority for beneficiaries, which starts with the spouse or civil partner and the surviving children.

Priority of Spouses and Civil Partners

The law safeguards the interests of spouses and civil partners in the case of intestacy. A spouse or civil partner must survive the deceased by at least 28 days to qualify as an intestate beneficiary. The inheritance, however, depends on the date of death. For deaths on or after 26 July 2023, the spouse or civil partner inherits personal effects, the first £322,000 of the estate, and half of the remaining estate, with the other half going to the children.

It’s worth noting that the entire estate passes to the surviving spouse or civil partner if there are no surviving children, grandchildren, or great-grandchildren. This underlines the priority given to spouses and civil partners in the inheritance hierarchy under intestacy rules.

Entitlements of Surviving Children and Descendants

What about the children? They are indeed a key consideration in intestacy rules. Under the intestacy rules, adopted children and stepchildren their stepparent has formally adopted have the same inheritance rights as biological children. This ensures that they are entitled to inherit from their parents’ estates. Furthermore, children from various relationships inherit equally from the deceased’s estate without bias towards one lineage over another.

It’s crucial to note that minors do not gain immediate access to their inheritance; instead, it’s held in trust until they reach the age of 18 or marry or form a civil partnership before then. Without a surviving spouse or civil partner, surviving children inherit the estate in equal shares.

Provisions for Other Relatives

The intestacy rules also make provisions for other surviving relatives when there is no surviving spouse, civil partner, or direct descendants. In such cases, the estate is inherited in a specific order, starting with surviving parents, full-blood siblings or their descendants, half-blood siblings or their descendants, and so on.

Notably, half-blood relatives who share only one biological parent with the deceased are entitled to inherit only if there are no whole-blood relatives of the same degree. This underscores the detailed and comprehensive nature of intestacy rules in ensuring an estate is passed on to the deceased’s kin.

Administering an Intestate Estate: Roles and Responsibilities

Illustration of a person fulfilling the role of a personal representative

Administering an intestate estate involves steps and responsibilities which are part of the estate administration process. This process begins with the appointment of a personal representative. Without a will, an administrator is selected from a prioritised list of family members and, if necessary, creditors. This administrator is responsible for:

  1. Obtaining a ‘Grant of Letters of Administration’ through the Probate Court, which may not always be required for small estates or jointly owned assets.

  2. Identifying and valuing the assets of the estate.

  3. Paying any outstanding debts and taxes owed by the deceased.

  4. Distributing the remaining assets to the rightful heirs according to intestacy laws.

Once the grant is obtained, the personal representative has the responsibility of:

  • Securing control of assets

  • Liquidating them as needed

  • Paying off the deceased’s debts

  • Ensuring safe asset maintenance

They might set up an Executor bank account with the estate’s funds to handle fees and must maintain records of all expenses for potential reimbursement from the estate.

It’s important to remember that the entire process of administering an intestate estate can range from 8 weeks for simple cases to several years for complex cases. This highlights the potential challenges and time-consuming nature of dealing with intestate estates.

Special Considerations for Cohabiting Partners and Unmarried Couples

Intestacy rules can seem particularly harsh for cohabiting partners and unmarried couples. Under these rules, cohabiting partners who are neither married nor in a civil partnership have no automatic right to inherit. However, all is not lost. Cohabiting partners can claim against an estate for reasonable financial provision under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 if they have cohabited for at least two years before the deceased’s death.

When assessing such claims, the court considers the partner’s needs and resources, the nature of the relationship, and any obligations the deceased had towards others. This provides a potential avenue for cohabiting partners to secure a life interest in a share of the estate despite the lack of automatic inheritance rights under intestacy rules.

Jointly-Owned Assets and Their Treatment in Intestacy

Jointly-owned assets add another layer of complexity to the intestacy landscape. There are two ways of jointly owning a property: beneficial joint tenancies and tenancies in common, each with its own implications under intestacy rules. Under a beneficial joint tenancy, when one owner dies, their share automatically transfers to the surviving joint tenants without forming part of their estate for inheritance purposes.

However, under a tenancy in common, each owner holds a distinct share of the property, which can be passed through a will or via intestacy, and no right of survivorship is inherently present. Joint bank or building society accounts usually pass directly to the surviving partner, who automatically inherits the entire account balance upon the other owner’s death.

These nuances in joint ownership highlight the importance of understanding the nature of your assets when planning for the future.

The Impact of Partial Intestacy on Estate Distribution

Illustration of assets being divided among beneficiaries

Partial intestacy is another concept that could significantly affect the distribution of an estate. It occurs when a valid will is left but does not dispose of all the deceased’s assets. This could result from changes that are not reflected in the will, such as the death of a beneficiary before the will is updated.

The assets not addressed by the will are distributed to the deceased’s relatives as prescribed by the intestacy laws, potentially including unintended beneficiaries. Managing partial intestacy can lead to complications and incur additional expenses in handling the deceased’s estate, including the costs of tracing entitled relatives through hiring genealogists.

This underscores the importance of regularly updating your will to reflect your current circumstances and wishes.

Dealing with Estates When There Are No Identifiable Heirs

In rare instances, a deceased person may leave no identifiable heirs behind. In these situations, the estate is deemed ‘Bona Vacantia’, and the assets are categorised as ownerless. The Treasury Solicitor then steps in to manage the estate on behalf of the Crown. If the deceased was a resident of Cornwall or Lancashire, the estate may pass to the Duchy of Cornwall or Lancaster instead of the Crown.

Estates that have become ‘Bona Vacantia’ are listed and can be searched in a publicly accessible weekly list online. This is one way the law ensures that unclaimed estates are properly managed and eventually passed on to potential beneficiaries.

Financial Implications and Costs Involved in Intestacy

Illustration of financial documents and calculators

Dealing with an intestate estate is not just a legal matter; it also has significant financial implications. The process can incur various costs, including inheritance tax, professional fees, and court fees, which can significantly affect the final distribution to beneficiaries. For instance, inheritance tax may be payable at 40% on the estate’s value above the £325,000 nil rate band, with potential deferrals on payment and implications for asset distribution.

Moreover, professional fees for dealing with intestate estates can be substantial, adding to the administrative costs. These costs, such as the probate court fee and costs for statutory notices and bankruptcy searches, can be deducted from the estate. These financial implications underline intestacy’s complications and potential costs, emphasising the importance of a valid will.

Altering the Outcome: Deeds of Family Arrangement

Despite the seemingly rigid nature of intestacy rules, there is a mechanism that allows for flexibility: the deed of family arrangement. This legal tool allows for rearranging the distribution of an estate as determined by intestacy laws. It can stipulate different proportions to be received by various beneficiaries or even provide for someone not originally entitled under intestacy rules.

However, for a deed of family arrangement to be valid, it must have the agreement of all beneficiaries who are entitled under the intestacy rules. It must also be made within two years of death to rearrange an estate’s distribution under intestacy effectively. This mechanism provides a ray of hope for those who may not be recognised under intestacy laws, offering an avenue to alter the distribution of an estate to reflect the family’s wishes.


In conclusion, intestacy rules are intricate and comprehensive, dictating the distribution of an estate when a person dies without a valid will. From prioritising spouses and civil partners to accommodating various relatives, these rules ensure an estate is passed on to the deceased’s kin. However, the process can be time-consuming, potentially costly, and may not always reflect the deceased’s wishes. Therefore, creating and regularly updating a valid will is crucial to ensure your assets are distributed according to your wishes.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the rules of intestacy?

The intestacy rules dictate that when there is no surviving spouse or civil partner, the estate must pass to the deceased’s half-blood siblings or their descendants, followed by children or other descendants, and then parents.

Who inherits if there is no will?

In the UK, if there is no surviving partner, the children of the deceased inherit the whole estate, divided equally if there are two or more children.

What is the order of beneficiaries for intestacy?

In intestacy, the order of beneficiaries is spouse/civil partner, children, parents, and extended family. Common-law partners are not included in the order of inheritance.

Can cohabiting partners inherit under intestacy rules?

No, cohabiting partners do not have an automatic right to inherit under intestacy rules, but they can potentially claim against the estate for reasonable financial provision in certain situations.

What is partial intestacy?

Partial intestacy occurs when a valid will does not cover all of the deceased’s assets, resulting in the remaining assets being distributed according to intestacy laws.