What Happens If You Die Without a Will in Wyoming?

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Wyoming probate and intestacy laws provide ways to settle a loved one’s estate even if they died without a will. The court can appoint a personal representative, who is usually a surviving spouse or another closely related family member, to take care of all of the outstanding business of the estate, including passing along the decedent’s property to heirs.

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Wyoming makes administering estates particularly easy through a generous small estate affidavit procedure that allows heirs to transfer the assets of estates up to $200,000 in value without going through the probate court. In this guide, let’s explore what happens if you die without a will in Wyoming.

Wyoming’s Intestacy Laws Explained

The intestacy laws of each state provide the framework for distributing the decedent’s assets in situations where the decedent didn’t leave a will. Typically, people make wills to provide specific instructions for their executor to carry out. For example, they can direct their assets to friends, family, and charities in any ratio and nominate a specific person to carry out their wishes.

Because the laws of intestacy apply a one-size-fits-all approach, they steer assets to biological family members and the spouse, if any. As a result, not everyone will be pleased with the outcome, but most people do want their wealth and belongings to go to their closest family members

How does Wyoming apply intestacy laws?

The intestacy laws only govern the decedent’s probate estate, which probably doesn’t include everything they own. The probate estate encompasses all the property and belongings that do not already have a named beneficiary or is not set up to transfer automatically through other means. As a result, even if someone didn’t make a will or formally estate plan, they might still have little to no probate estate. 

Using the intestacy laws is much like looking at a family tree. Only, instead of going back as far as you can, the laws of intestacy tell you to look as close to the decedent as possible to find the person or group of people who will inherit. 

People with the same relationship to the decedent inherit equally when there is no will. For example, all of a decedent’s children would each get the same amount, whether they had a close relationship with their parent or were estranged. 

How do you identify the probate estate in Wyoming?

Determining the assets in the probate estate, and therefore subject to the laws of intestacy, will be one of the first steps in applying the intestacy laws and figuring out how to deal with the decedent’s estate in general. 

Often, property transfers outside of the probate process, exempting the property from the laws of intestacy. This also reduces the estate’s value, which makes it more likely that you can use a small estate affidavit rather than opening a case with the court. 

The major non-probate property transfers include special deeds and designated beneficiaries on accounts. Traditionally, real estate is a significant motivation for heirs to open a probate case. When you try to sell a house or other piece of real property, the title insurance company requires a clear chain of title. And, if your loved one died with the house only in their name, the appointment of a personal representative is usually needed to fulfill that chain of title. 

However, real estate titled as joint tenants with the right of survivorship avoids probate because the title remains with the surviving owner. Usually, only a death certificate is needed. Alternatively, property owners can file transferable-on-death deeds while they are still alive to designate a successor owner for the property. To be effective, these beneficiary deeds must be filed with the local clerk’s office. 

Besides real estate, check all of the decedent’s bank and financial accounts for a payable-on-death beneficiary. These non-probate transfers are the most common, especially as account custodians increasingly make it very simple to designate one or more beneficiaries. 

Accounts with payable-on-death beneficiaries automatically pass on to the beneficiary. The beneficiary presents proof of their identity and of the decedent’s death to collect the account balance. Because this can be confusing, you might want to consider working with an estate attorney if you find yourself facing probate. 

How Does Probate Work in Wyoming if There Is No Will?

Estates go through probate so that the court can appoint a personal representative. While that may seem like an arbitrary or needless process, it ends up facilitating the administration of the estate by naming a specific personal representative and giving them an official court order to authorize their actions. 

Once appointed, the personal representative can take possession of the estate’s assets, pay bills and debts on behalf of the estate, and then transfer the estate assets to the new owners: the decedent’s heirs.

Probate ultimately proves beneficial to heirs and other interested parties by ensuring only one authorized person acts on behalf of the estate. Probate also requires that the personal representative accept the appointment according to all of the rules of the probate code. This ensures that the personal representative acts appropriately on behalf of the estate and heirs rather than for themselves.

Opening a probate case in Wyoming

By petitioning the court to open a probate case, the heirs or other interested parties are asking the court to appoint a personal representative of the estate. The personal representative will follow the probate and intestacy laws to wrap up all of the loose ends of the estate, which commonly includes finding and securing the assets, paying bills and taxes, and distributing the assets to the heirs.

While an out-of-state resident can serve as a personal representative, the court also requires that a Wyoming resident act as a co-personal representative.

The personal representative remains accountable to the heirs and court throughout the process. While the court doesn’t oversee the day-to-day details of administering an estate, it remains the final authority over the personal representative’s actions. As a result, it can ultimately sanction them for any wrongdoing.

Wyoming law requires that the personal representative close the estate within one year of appointment unless there is good cause for delay. All assets must be transferred to the heirs and debts and bills paid before the estate can be closed.

Small estate affidavit

Some estates can be administered without a full probate case, depending on the estate’s needs and value. Heirs of estates worth less than $200,000 can transfer those assets with a small estate affidavit. 

The affidavit declares the property being collected and names the heirs entitled to it. Then, the person collecting the asset presents the affidavit and a copy of the decedent’s death certificate to anyone in possession of the decedent’s property, like a bank or landlord.

Rather than filing the affidavit with the court, the heir files it with the county court. Before using the affidavit, you must wait at least 30 days from the decedent’s death. 

The small estate affidavit offers an inexpensive, quick way to transfer assets, but it does come with some shortcomings. It doesn’t provide the authority to address other issues that often arise when dealing with an estate, like setting up an estate account to pay bills or taxes. 

When using the small estate affidavit, the heir collecting the assets must still distribute the assets according to the laws of intestacy.

Who Typically Inherits Assets in Wyoming If There Isn’t a Will?

Wyoming’s intestacy laws direct the decedent’s assets to the closest surviving relatives. For most adults, that ends up being the spouse and children, but the intestacy laws certainly look further afield for those without these relationships. 

Wyoming applies a straightforward approach to inheritance. The surviving spouse of a married decedent inherits the entire estate if there are no children. Alternatively, the children inherit the entire estate if the decedent is unmarried. The children and spouse each inherit one-half of the estate.

When someone dies without a spouse or descendants but is survived by parents or siblings, they inherit the estate in equal shares.

Frequently Asked Questions: Dying Without a Will in Wyoming

Many estates can be easily resolved, but for more complex issues, be sure to consult with a probate attorney. Here are some of the most frequently asked questions about wills in Wyoming. 

What happens when your parent dies without a will?

If your parent dies without a will, the portion of the estate that you and any siblings inherit depends on your parent’s marital status at their death. If they were unmarried, you and your siblings would inherit the entire estate. If they were married, the surviving spouse inherits one-half of the estate, and the children divide the other one-half amongst themselves.

When considering the division of your parent’s estate, remember that all biological and legally adopted children receive the same amount. Step-children or people who are “like children” don’t stand to inherit under the intestacy laws. In those situations, it’s essential for people to make a will

What are a surviving spouse’s rights if there’s no will?

The surviving spouse either inherits the entire estate or one-half of the estate, depending on whether the decedent has any children or other descendants. 

As discussed above, non-probate transfers remove assets from the probate estate and, consequently, the laws of intestacy. As a result, the surviving spouse usually ends up with more than just one-half of the decedent’s assets, even if they did have children.

Married people most commonly own real estate jointly with the right of survivorship, and that designation might also be on any co-owned bank accounts. Even if the decedent had separate accounts, check whether the decedent named the spouse as the payable-on-death beneficiary.

Are there any probate exemptions if you die without a will in Wyoming?

Estates valued at less than $200,000 can sometimes skip probate by using the small estate affidavit to transfer assets to the heirs. The laws of intestacy still apply, as do requirements regarding the payment of creditors.

Additionally, most people have assets that skip probate through non-probate transfers. For example, real estate, bank accounts, retirement benefits, and life insurance policies can all go directly to the new owner if the decedent made specific designations during their lifetime.

Who is considered next of kin in Wyoming?

After someone passes away, those left behind contemplate who is next of kin for a couple of different reasons: to determine who has priority for appointment as the personal representative and who inherits the decedent’s estate. 

The surviving spouse has priority for appointment as personal representative, followed by any children or grandchildren. The spouse and children enjoy equal inheritance rights and split the estate 50/50 if both survive the decedent.

Estate Plan for Customized Estate Distribution

Wyoming’s probate process should be viewed as a tool for families to use rather than a roadblock when a loved one dies without a will. However, state law can never fully capture the intricacies of personal relationships and family life or the lack thereof. 

As a result, making a will remains the best option to ensure assets pass exactly as you wish. Have you taken steps to protect your wishes and assets?


Sources:
  1. “Title 2 - Wills, Decedents’ Estates and Probate Code.” Wyoming Legislature. Wyoleg.gov.

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