What Happens If You Die Without a Will in Rhode Island?


There's a lot we don't learn in school: how to pay taxes, how to stick to a budget, how to load a dishwasher – these can seem like daunting tasks when we reach adulthood. One task that doesn't have to be daunting is end-of-life planning. End-of-life planning is just what it sounds like – making a plan for what happens at the end of your life.

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Many considerations go into end-of-life planning, but one crucial aspect is deciding if you need a will. A will is a legal document that sets out how you want your property distributed after you are gone. Whether you need a will is a personal decision, but something to consider is what will happen if you die without one. Read on as we discuss what happens if you die without a will in Rhode Island.

Rhode Island's Intestacy Laws Explained

If a person dies without a will, they are said to have died "intestate." Each state has its own intestacy laws that determine how to redistribute a person's property if they die without a will. 

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How Does Probate Work in Rhode Island If There Is No Will?

Probate is the court-supervised process for settling a deceased person's "estate," i.e., all their money, real estate, and stuff they owned while they were alive. A person's estate generally goes through probate regardless of whether there is a will. Some exceptions for "small estates" are discussed at the end of this section. 

One of the primary purposes of probate is to transfer property ownership. Keep in mind that not all property is subject to probate. Property that automatically transfers ownership at death – e.g., life insurance policies with named beneficiaries, trusts, or jointly owned property with a right of survivorship – does not have to go through probate.

Every city or town in Rhode Island has its own probate court that oversees the process. Probate will occur in the county's court where the deceased resided at their death.

During probate, the court appoints an administrator who is responsible for divvying up the estate. This person is often the surviving spouse or other "next of kin" (this term is defined below).

The administrator has many responsibilities, including preparing and filing legal documents, appearing in court, and transferring assets. The administrator must complete these tasks within specific deadlines. In many instances, it may be necessary for the administrator to hire an attorney to assist with the probate process. 

The administrator's responsibilities will vary depending on the size and complexity of the estate. In general, the administrator will be responsible for doing the following:

  • Taking possession of and preserving the estate
  • Collecting all estate income, such as income from rental properties
  • Paying all estate debts
  • Determining "heirs at law" (defined below) and "next of kin"
  • Resolving any pending lawsuits
  • Obeying all probate court orders
  • Paying all state and federal taxes
  • Distributing assets to the heirs per Rhode Island's intestacy laws
  • Providing an account to the probate court
  • Closing the estate

Probate is not a quick process. In Rhode Island, "[a]n estate must be opened for at least six months because Rhode Island law gives creditors that period to file their claims with an estate." Generally, one cannot distribute any assets to the heirs until those six months expire. Closing the estate may take even longer.

Small estates

Not all estates have to go through the lengthy probate process. In some instances, it may be possible to go through a simplified probate process called "voluntary informal administration of small estates." Informal administration is available if the following is true:

  • The deceased owned no real estate at the time of their death
  • The deceased's assets total less than $15,000 in value
  • Thirty days have passed since the deceased's death
  • No one has initiated probate proceedings

Probate forms

If you are going through the probate process, keep in mind that Rhode Island law requires that the Rhode Island Secretary of State provide probate forms. These forms are available here. You can contact the appropriate probate court if you need a form that is not provided online. 

Probate is a complex process. If you have questions, you should contact an experienced probate attorney.

Who Typically Inherits Assets in Rhode Island If There Isn't a Will?

If there isn't a will, Rhode Island intestacy laws determine who the heirs are. In Rhode Island, the state gives the surviving spouse and children priority regarding inheritance. However, if no surviving spouse or children exists, the grandchildren, parents, and siblings may be entitled to inherit assets. 

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Real estate

Real estate is a significant asset, and you may be surprised to learn that it does not automatically pass to the surviving spouse. The spouse instead gets a "life estate" in the deceased's real estate. A life estate means someone has “the legal right under state law to use the property for his or her lifetime, after which title fully vests in the remainderman (the person named in the deed, trust agreement, or other legal document as being the ultimate owner when the life estate ends).”

This means that the surviving spouse can possess, rent, and otherwise profit from the real estate as long as they are alive. It’s also known as an “ownership right”, which they will have in the real estate as long as they are alive.

The following people in this order of priority can inherit any real estate:

  • The deceased’s children or their descendants
  • The deceased's surviving parents, if there are no children or descendants
  • The deceased's siblings and their descendants, if there are no parents

Personal property

Once the debts, funeral expenses, and other expenses associated with settling the estate are paid, the deceased's remaining personal property may be distributed. When discussing distribution, you may come across the term "issue." "Issue" means a person's lineal descendants, such as their children, grandchildren, etc.

Under Rhode Island law, the deceased's personal property is distributed in the following order of priority:

  • If the deceased died without issue, the surviving spouse gets $50,000 from the estate and one-half of the remainder
  • If the deceased died with children, the surviving spouse gets one-half of everything
  • The rest of the estate is distributed among heirs in the same manner as real estate

Inheritance can be complicated. If you have questions about who will inherit your assets, you should consult with an estate planning attorney. The estate planning attorney can answer your questions and help you create a plan that suits your needs.

Frequently Asked Questions: Dying Without a Will in Rhode Island

If you or a loved one die without a will in Rhode Island, you can rest assured you're not the first. Read on as we answer frequently asked questions about dying without a will in Rhode Island.

What happens when your parent dies without a will?

Regardless of age, losing a parent can be a difficult experience. These difficulties can be compounded when your parent dies without a will. What happens next depends on whether your parent has a surviving spouse and if you have any siblings. It will also depend on whether you want to play an active role in administering their estate. 

As discussed above, the court will prioritize you or your parent's surviving spouse when appointing an estate administrator. You do not have to take on this role if you do not want to.

Once the court appoints an estate administrator, the probate process will follow, as discussed above. Your inheritance rights will also follow those discussed above. Your right to any real estate will depend on whether your parent had a surviving spouse and how many siblings you have. If your parent does not have a surviving spouse and you are an only child, you inherit all of your parent's real estate and personal property. 

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

In Rhode Island, if there's no will, the surviving spouse may have rights in addition to those already discussed above.

The surviving spouse can also get an allowance, paid out of the estate, for up to six months after their spouse dies.

Also, if there are no children, real estate may be set aside to support them.

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

Rhode Island has probate exemptions if you die without a will. However, these exemptions are based on your familial relationships. 

Allowances to families of decedents

In Rhode Island, the deceased's surviving spouse and children under 18 are entitled to certain probate exemptions. Their "wearing apparel" (clothes) belong to them, and they are also entitled to some property, including the following: 

  • Furniture
  • Furnishings
  • Household effects
  • Supplies

Who is considered next of kin in Rhode Island?

"Next of kin" is often used to refer to a person's closest living relative. The phrase can refer to a person's closest relatives, including their spouse, children, grandchildren, parents, and grandparents. When determining who is entitled to inherit, the administrator is in charge of identifying the surviving spouse and any "heirs at law." "Heirs at law" means those people entitled to inherit assets when a person dies without a will. However, just because a person is a next of kin does not necessarily mean they are an heir at law. 

For additional information about who is considered next of kin in Rhode Island, you should consult with an experienced estate planning attorney. An estate planning attorney can answer your questions and advise you regarding next-of-kin relationships.

End-Of-Life Planning Doesn't Have to Be Overwhelming 

It's okay if you feel a little overwhelmed after reading this article. Remember that this article discusses what happens if you or a loved one dies without a will in Rhode Island. You have the chance to change what happens right now. 

End-of-life planning doesn't have to be overwhelming. We developed the Cake planning platform to help people like you with end-of-life planning. You can create and save documents detailing your legal, legacy, funeral, and healthcare decisions using the Cake website. Give yourself and your loved one's peace of mind and start your estate planning today. 

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