What Happens if You Die Without a Will in North Carolina?


North Carolina law refers to dying without a legal will as “intestate.” If this happens to you, the state decides how to distribute your assets, including property under your name only, finances, pets, art collectibles, or pets. All estates must go through probate in North Carolina, but without a valid will, the process is more complicated. The court assigns who will oversee the distribution and possible sale of your assets.

Intestate succession can leave your loved ones, including parents, spouse, and children, without receiving what you may have wanted them to, or what they hoped to benefit from. A court-appointed estate administrator cannot give precedence to what you may have preferred when making succession decisions if you die without a will. This type of legal situation can create disputes among your family.

The State Determines How to Distribute Your Assets

If you die without a will, the state begins the probate process by naming a personal representative of their choice who will distribute your assets. While the surviving spouse is a common choice, the judge may choose someone else, and it can get increasingly difficult the larger the family is, including in cases of former spouses. If multiple individuals have equal rights to serve as personal representative, this can create conflict.

If none of your relatives accepts to take on the role of the personal representative, the court has the option to name a public trustee, which means a complete stranger decides how to distribute your possessions as required by North Carolina law.

According to the North Carolina Intestate Succession Act, your assets are divided as follows:

  • Parents only: They each get half of your full estate. If only one is still alive, they receive everything.
  • Parent(s) and spouse: Your spouse gets the first $50,000 of your personal property. The representative splits the rest evenly between your spouse and parent(s).
  • Spouse only: They receive all assets that a will could have allowed.
  • Spouse and one child: Your spouse receives the first $30,000 worth of personal property. The estate administrator divides the rest of your personal property and all real estate evenly between your spouse and child.
  • Spouse and two or more children: Your spouse gets the first $30,000 worth of personal property, a third of the remaining personal property, and a third of all real estate. The children each receive equal parts of your remaining personal property and real estate.
  • Children only: The personal representative devices all property and assets equally among children. If there is only one child, they receive everything.
  • No parents, spouse, or child: The estate administrator splits everything among other blood relatives, in the following order: siblings, grandparents, uncles and aunts, and others.
  • No blood relative: All your assets go to the state of North Carolina, known as “escheat.”

If you die with debts, the personal representative can decide what property to sell to reimburse your creditors, even if it goes against the family’s wishes.

The Court Designates a Legal Guardian for Minor Children

If you have minor children, a will allows you to designate who their legal guardian is after your death. This is especially important if their other biological parent is deceased. If you die without a will, the court determines who will have physical custody of your child until they turn 18.

Without having established a trust to manage your minor child’s finances, the legal process to petition the court to qualify to manage their finances is long and complex. Even if your child can receive all their inheritance on their eighteenth anniversary due to your lack of will, they may not have the maturity to handle them.

You May Not Have a Financial or Healthcare Power of Attorney

Individuals who do not establish a proper will usually lack other important estate planning documents such as financial and healthcare power of attorney documents. This can cause problems while you are still alive but may need to have someone you trust to make financial decisions regarding your assets or pay your bills if you are incapacitated. When you appoint someone to have a healthcare power of attorney, they have the legal authority to make medical decisions for palliative care or if you are in a coma. Without such estate planning documents, your assets and even your treatment options may not respect your wishes.

Without proper estate planning, your funeral may not respect your wishes either. Your relatives may not know about them in the first place, and a lack of legally binding documents may prevent them from organizing the funeral that you desired.

Hire a Reputable Inheritance Lawyer to Create Your Will

Working with an experienced attorney for your will or any other estate planning documents can make a positive difference for your peace of mind and your loved ones. At Oak City Estate Planning, our team assesses your situation with great care and talks about your goals with you. This helps us find an appropriate strategy to establish your will and other legal solutions such as a trust for a minor child, or a power of attorney. We are committed to helping you bring your vision to life when it comes to the future distribution of your assets and your family’s future.

If you need to establish a will in Raleigh or its surrounding areas, contact Oak City Estate Planning today at (919) 975-5359 to schedule a consultation.