What Happens If You Die Without a Will in Tennessee?


If you call Tennessee home, you know the state is famous for its music. Tennessee's capital Nashville is known as the country music capital of the world.

Country singers love to sing songs about life and death. While these songs can ring true to many aspects of a person's life, they cannot accurately depict what happens when a person dies. Where the country music artists fall short, attorneys can step in. At least concerning what happens when a person dies without a will. 

Jump ahead to these sections:

A will is a legal document detailing how a person wants their assets distributed upon death. Writing a will is a personal decision; it is up to you to decide if you need a will. If you are curious whether a will is right for you, then understanding what happens if you die without a will may help your decision-making process. 

Tennessee's Intestacy Laws Explained

If a person dies without a will, they are said to have died "intestate," which means their state's intestacy laws determine how to distribute their assets. Each state has its own intestacy laws.

» MORE: Your family has 500 hours of work to do after you die. Learn how to make it easier.

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

You may have heard the term "probate" before. "Probate" refers to the process of validating a will, but in recent years the definition has expanded to include the court-supervised process of administering a deceased person's estate. Administering an estate means managing the person's estate through probate. 

The estate does not necessarily include all of the deceased's property; only property the deceased owned alone passes through probate. This means jointly-held property, or a policy like life insurance, may not go through probate, as these policies must name a person to whom assets will pass upon the holder's death. Additionally, when someone dies in Tennessee, their real property immediately passes to their heirs. We'll discuss this further below.

In Tennessee, probate courts have jurisdiction over all matters related to administering a deceased person's estate. You must generally file for probate in the county court where the deceased resided at the time of their death.

Probate involves appointing a personal representative to handle the estate administration. When selecting a personal representative, the probate court must give preference first to the deceased's spouse. If they are not interested or unavailable, the court will then prioritize the next of kin, then a creditor of the estate, and so forth. Once the court selects someone, the probate court issues the personal representative letters of administration authorizing the personal representative to handle the estate affairs. 

In general, estate administration includes the following:

  • Taking inventory of the estate
  • Safeguarding the property
  • Filing necessary documents with the probate court
  • Notifying heirs
  • Notifying creditors
  • Paying any debts
  • Paying taxes
  • Paying expenses of administration
  • Distributing the estate per Tennessee law
  • Filing the final settlement of the estate with the court

The personal representative has a lot of responsibilities. If you have been appointed as a personal representative and have questions about your role, you should consult with a probate attorney. A probate attorney can assist you with estate administration.

Small estate

In Tennessee, going through the whole probate proceeding is not always necessary. In some instances, it may be possible to transfer property via a "Small Estate Affidavit" if the following is true: 

  • The estate does not include real property
  • The deceased's personal property has a value of less than $50,000
  • Forty-five days have passed since the deceased's death
  • No one has started probate proceedings

Contact a probate attorney if you have questions about proceeding with a loved one's estate. A probate attorney can answer your questions and help you with the administration process. 

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

If there isn't a will, Tennessee law will determine who the heirs are. Under Tennessee law, much depends on whether the deceased had a surviving spouse and/or children. "Surviving" means the individual died at least 120 hours after the deceased in question. You may also encounter the word "issue," which means a person's lineal descendants, such as their children, grandchildren, etc. In Tennessee, "issue" includes both natural and adopted children.

Share of the surviving spouse

In Tennessee, the surviving spouse gets the entire estate if there are no surviving children or grandchildren. If there are surviving children, the surviving spouse receives either one-third of the entire estate or a child's share of the estate, whichever is worth more. 

» MORE: Everyone's life is worth celebrating. These tools keep their memory close.

Share of heirs other than surviving spouse

Now that you know how the state distributes property to the surviving spouse, you may be wondering what happens to the rest of the property. 

In Tennessee, whatever doesn't go to the surviving spouse will go, in this order of priority:

  • To the children/grandchildren of the deceased
  • If there are no surviving children, to the deceased parent or parents
  • If there are no surviving children or parents, to the deceased's siblings
  • If there are no surviving siblings, to any nieces/nephews
  • If there are no surviving any of the above, to the deceased's surviving grandparents, or aunts/uncles

Remember, intestacy laws only apply if there is no will. If you would like to pass your property to someone not listed above, you can do so in a will. Further, if you would like someone to inherit a share of your estate that is different from what they would be allowed under the law, you can also do so via a will.

It is never too late to start your end-of-life planning journey, and Cake is here to help. Utilize our planning platform to create a free end-of-life plan.

Frequently Asked Questions: Dying Without a Will in Tennessee

The probate process is different for every individual and can range from simple to complex. You will have many questions if this is your first time handling the probate process after losing a loved one. Below we answer frequently asked questions about dying without a will in Tennessee. 

What happens when your parent dies without a will?

Losing a parent can be challenging, especially if your parent dies without a will. In the earlier sections, we discussed what happens when a person dies without a will, including the probate process. Much of what occurs will depend on whether your parent leaves behind a surviving spouse and if you have any surviving siblings. 

If your parent does not have a surviving spouse and you are the only surviving child, the probate court will give you priority when appointing a personal administrator. You will also be entitled to inherit the entire estate. 

Matters can get more complicated if you have siblings. If you have questions about what happens when your parent dies without a will, you should speak with an experienced probate attorney.  

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

In Tennessee, the spouse has many rights if there's no will. First, the court must prioritize the surviving spouse when deciding who should be the estate administrator.

As discussed above, the spouse may be entitled to the entire estate if there are no surviving children. They will receive a portion of it if there are.

The surviving spouse may also decide not to claim their appointed share of the estate, and will then have a right to take an “elective-share” amount of the estate. The elective-share amount is “determined by the length of time the surviving spouse and the decedent were married to each other.” For the purposes of calculating marriage duration, the years do not have to be consecutive.

Additionally, the surviving spouse may be entitled to certain probate exemptions, which we will discuss in the following section. 

If you have questions about your rights as a surviving spouse, you should contact a probate attorney immediately. Time is of the essence when dealing with probate matters.

» MORE: You need more than a will. Start here.

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

In Tennessee, the surviving spouse and/or children under 18 may be entitled to some additional property on top of their share of the estate. Under Tennessee law, the surviving spouse may receive the following exempt property as long as its value is less than $50,000:

  • Tangible personal property.
  • A motor vehicle or vehicles.

This property is exempt because it "shall in no case be liable for the payment of claims against the estate."

Year's support allowance

In Tennessee, the surviving spouse is also "entitled to a reasonable allowance in money out of the estate for such surviving spouse's maintenance during the period of one (1) year after the death of the spouse, according to the surviving spouse's previous standard of living, taking into account the condition of the estate of the deceased spouse.” 

This allowance is the "absolute property of the surviving spouse" and "shall be exempt from all claims," i.e., it cannot be part of any inheritance for anyone else. 

The best time to learn about probate exemptions is before losing a loved one. If you have questions about probate exemptions, contact an experienced estate planning attorney. They can answer your questions and help you with end-of-life planning if necessary.

Who is considered next of kin in Tennessee?

The term "next of kin" can be important when discussing inheritance. "Next of kin" in Tennessee refers to those most closely related to the deceased by blood, who are entitled to inherit their estate. This differs slightly from the definition of the word "heirs," which means "those persons, including the surviving spouse, who are entitled under the statutes of intestate succession to the property of a decedent [deceased person]."

As discussed above, under Tennessee law, not all relatives are entitled to inherit property. This chart can be helpful if you want to determine who is an heir and who isn’t. For additional information, you should consult with an experienced estate planning attorney. An estate planning attorney can answer your questions and advise whether someone may be an heir. 

End-Of-Life Planning Is an Ongoing Process 

As country music star Thomas Rhett once sang, "life changes." As your life changes, whether through ups or downs, so will your end-of-life plans. This means that end-of-life planning is an ongoing process. 

Do not let the ongoing nature of end-of-life planning overwhelm you. With the right resources, you can easily navigate the process. The Cake planning platform is the right resource to help you easily organize and update your online plan as your life changes.

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