What Happens If You Die Without a Will in Missouri?


If your loved one dies without a will in Missouri, the distribution of their assets happens according to the state’s intestacy laws. The intestacy laws govern who inherits based on the relatives that someone leaves behind. 

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Missouri probate law offers several options for wrapping up your loved one’s estate. Heirs can quickly take care of low-value estates with minimal court involvement through one of the state’s probate shortcuts of a small estate affidavit or refusal of letters. 

It can be daunting to learn you are subject to the state’s probate and intestacy laws when dealing with a loved one’s estate. Remember that intestacy laws exist to provide an unbiased guideline for distributing assets to prevent a free-for-all frenzy. Likewise, the probate procedures provide the tools to transfer the assets fairly and legally.

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Missouri’s Intestacy Laws Explained

Missouri’s intestacy laws provide the framework to divide and pass along an estate when someone dies without a will. Typically, a decedent details their bequests in a will. However, when a will doesn’t exist, the state’s intestacy laws act as a generic template to provide consistency, and ideally, fairness regardless of the family situation. 

Of course, the laws of intestacy come with limitations. They dictate that only a spouse and biological or legally adopted relatives inherit. Relatives inherit as a class, meaning that those who inherit, inherit equally. For example, all of the decedent’s children take in equal shares, or the parents may inherit equally. 

How Does Probate Work in Missouri If There Is No Will?

The probate process varies depending on the size and needs of the estate.

Regardless of which probate process an estate uses, the goal of probate is to pay any outstanding debts and then transfer the decedent’s assets to the heirs. At the end of the process, no property should remain in the decedent’s name.

Small estates

For estates worth less than $40,000, the small estate affidavit is the fastest and easiest way to transfer assets. An heir files the affidavit with the Missouri circuit court within the decedent’s county of residence. Then, the court issues a certified order directing the transfer of the decedent’s assets. 

The small estate affidavit streamlines and fast-tracks the probate process, so a family could reasonably expect to take care of the estate within a few months. In comparison, regular probate takes at least six months.

Even though the small estate affidavit is the fastest and easiest process, heirs should still anticipate a moderate effort and contact with the court. Estates valued between $15,000 and $40,000 must publish notice to creditors. The court also requires proof of the real estate value being transferred through the small estate process, which may require that you get a letter from a real estate agent or a copy of a recent appraisal. 

The court’s order for the distribution acts as the golden, which you’ll need to access and transfer the decedent’s property. Plan to show and provide a copy to each person or entity holding the decedent’s property.

Refusal of letters

Another option for small estates is known as the refusal of letters. 

The surviving spouse, surviving minor children, or creditors can claim specific amounts of property through the refusal of letters. In that process, the court refuses to issue letters of administration appointing a personal representative. Instead, the court will favor the surviving heir or creditor to collect the portion to which they are entitled.

Creditors owed at least $9,000 can pursue the first $9,000 of the estate. 

Under the intestacy laws, the surviving spouse and minor children keep a portion of the decedent’s estate, free and clear of debts, as exempt property. The exempt property allowance prevents the spouse or minor children from becoming destitute upon the decedent’s death. 

The surviving spouse or unmarried minor children can claim the property, regardless of its value, as long as it falls under the Missouri exempt property statute. It includes, but is not limited to, a passenger car, household goods and clothes, furniture, and similar personal property.

Whether the surviving spouse, children, or a creditor pursues a refusal of letters of administration, the process looks similar. If, for example, a decedent dies with a probate estate that consists only of a car titled only in their name, the spouse could request a transferral of the title through the refusal of letters.

Independent administration

Independent administration refers to the type of probate where the court appoints a personal representative, but it empowers the personal representative to act somewhat independently. The personal representative must follow the probate code and laws of intestacy regarding the disposal of the estate’s assets. However, they don’t have to seek the court’s permission for each action. 

The court issues letters of administration as proof of the personal representative’s authority to act on behalf of the estate. The personal representative then shows those letters as they open an estate account, negotiate the decedent’s debts, and sell or transfer the assets.

Supervised administration

Supervised administration serves as the most formal type of probate available in Missouri. Like independent administration, the court appoints a personal representative to manage the estate's affairs. Unlike in independent administration, the court considers and must grant its approval to all of the personal representative's actions.

For example, in an independently administered estate, the personal representative reports to the court after selling an estate asset, like a piece of real estate. Under supervised administration, the personal representative first requests the court's permission to sell the property. Then, after the property sells, the personal representative reports that transaction to the court. 

Because the personal representative must get the court's permission before making big decisions regarding the estate's assets, it takes longer to administer a supervised estate. Imagine filing a motion and waiting on the court's answer for each estate asset. 

While supervised administration is burdensome to both the court and the family, it is necessary when the heirs don't agree to the independent administration or when the estate has high-value and sensitive assets. 

Supervised administration ultimately provides greater protection to the heirs because it ensures the court's oversight of the personal representative's action before they act rather than after. Besides protecting the heirs, supervised administration also affords the personal representative protection from unhappy heirs — after all, the court gave the personal representative permission for each of their actions.

» MORE: A will is only the first step. Get all of the documents you need.

Non-probate assets

When finding the best probate process for your situation, remember not all assets are subject to the probate process, regardless of value. Many assets can be set up to be transferred outside of probate, meaning they are exempt from the intestacy laws. 

Non-probate assets would transfer upon the decedent’s death if they made specific designations or choices when titling their property. Even people who don’t make a will or have no interest in estate planning sometimes end up with at least a few non-probate transfers.

Finding and identifying whether an asset is subject to a non-probate transfer can be frustrating for heirs. There’s no way to know until you find the asset, and then it may be left to someone else. 

Many types of non-probate transfers exist, including:

  • Payable-on-death beneficiaries named on bank and other financial accounts;
  • Jointly owned bank accounts designed as jointly owned with right of survivorship;
  • Life insurance policies and retirement accounts with named beneficiaries;
  • Real estate deeds titled ‘joint with right of survivorship’; 
  • Property held in a trust;
  • Real estate with a filed beneficiary deed; 

Identifying assets that transfer outside of probate can help you determine the estate’s value, and, consequently, whether it’s eligible for any of the probate shortcuts detailed above. Non-probate transfers deduct that asset from the probate estate, meaning they do not contribute toward the total estate value. 

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

The surviving spouse and descendants are most likely to inherit under the Missouri intestacy laws. 

To use Missouri's intestacy laws, you'll apply them to the decedent's unique family situation. The intestacy laws establish a priority for an inheritance, so you continue down the priority list until you find a relative, or class of relatives, to inherit. 

The surviving spouse and the decedent's descendants — their children, grandchildren, and other issues — top the list of priorities. Descendants would inherit the entire estate if the decedent was unmarried upon their death. Likewise, the spouse inherits the whole estate where the decedent had no children at their death. When both a spouse and descendants exist, the formula is more complex. 

If the decedent's descendants are also the surviving spouse's descendants — i.e., their children or grandchildren together – then the spouse inherits the first $20,000 of the estate plus one-half of the probate estate. The descendants inherit the remainder.

Alternatively, if the decedent left descendants from another relationship, the spouse only inherits one-half of the probate estate, with the descendants inheriting the remainder. 

After a spouse and descendants, parents and siblings stand to inherit. If both parents and siblings survive the decedent, the parents and siblings inherit in equal shares.

Frequently Asked Questions: Dying Without a Will in Missouri

Some probate scenarios happen so frequently that it’s easy to apply the laws of intestacy to your family. However, when a complicated situation arises in your family, don’t hesitate to consult an attorney for a customized application of Missouri’s laws to your family structure.

What happens when your parent dies without a will?

When your parent dies without a will, all of your parent’s children inherit an equal share of the probate estate. The descendants’ share of the estate depends on whether your parent was married at their death. 

If your parent dies while unmarried, you and your siblings inherit the entire estate in equal shares. If your parents were married to each other at the time of one parent’s death, then your surviving parent inherits the first $20,000 plus one-half of the estate. The descendants inherit the remainder. 

If your deceased parent had any children with anyone other than their surviving spouse, the descendants and surviving spouse split the estate equally.

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

The surviving spouse’s inheritance varies depending on whether the decedent had children. The surviving spouse inherits the entire estate when the decedent has no descendants. 

If the decedent’s children were also the spouse’s children, the surviving spouse gets the first $20,000 plus one-half of the intestate estate. If the decedent had children from another relationship, the spouse’s portion drops to only one-half of the estate.

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

Estates can avoid the full probate process for several reasons, even when the decedent didn’t leave a will. 

Often, after deducting the non-probate transfers from the estate’s value, it’s small enough to transfer by either a small estate affidavit or a refusal of letters of administration.

How long does probate take when there is no will?

The length of time it takes to completely probate an estate depends on several factors, but the estate's value may be the biggest determiner. Transferring the decedent’s estate can take just a few months if heirs administer it via the small estate affidavit or through the refusal of letters. 

Independent administration takes at least six months, and supervised administration takes even longer. Estates that require a lot of untangling with complicated ownership or debts take longer than simple estates.

Who is considered next of kin in Missouri?

Next of kin refers to the closest surviving family member of the person who passed away. That may be the surviving spouse, children, grandchildren, parents, or siblings.

Take Advantage of Missouri’s Probate Options

Missouri courts provide many forms that you will need to start a probate case for free online. Between the several probate shortcuts and the courts’ accessibility to unrepresented parties, handling your loved one’s estate should be easier in Missouri than in other states.

  1. “Title XXXI Trusts and Estates of Decedents and Persons Under Disability.” Missouri Revisor of Statutes. 8 Feb. 2022. Revisor.mo.gov
  2. “Probate Law Resource Guide.” The Missouri Bar Association, Lawyers Help, 2022. Missourilawyershelp.org.

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