What Happens If You Die Without a Will in Washington DC?

Updated

If you’ve heard of country and bluegrass singer Ricky Skaggs, then you probably know “that you can't take it with you when you go.” If you can’t take it with you when you go, then what happens to it? Well, that depends on whether or not you have a will. Even more confusing, where you live can even impact what happens when you die without a will. 

Jump ahead to these sections:

A will is a legal document that expresses your wishes for how your property is to be distributed upon your death. If you have a will, then the legal document determines what happens to it (your property) when you go.

If you don’t have a will, then you should talk to an estate planning attorney to discuss if you need a will. The decision to draft a will is a personal choice. While we can’t tell you whether or not you need a will, we can tell you what happens if you die without a will in Washington DC.

Washington DC’s Intestacy Laws Explained

A person who dies without a will is said to have died intestate. If a person dies intestate, then the intestacy laws of the state where the deceased person resided control what happens to their property. Intestacy laws may also apply in other circumstances such as when a will is invalid.

While Washington DC isn’t actually a state or a city, it still has intestacy laws. If you die without a will in Washington DC, then Washington DC’s intestacy laws will dictate what happens to your property.

How Does Probate Work in Washington DC If There Is No Will?

Probate is the legal process of settling the deceased’s estate after their death. The personal representative is the person responsible for settling the financial affairs of the deceased. The personal representative is appointed by the court. 

The personal representative does not have to be the deceased’s next of kin. However, next of kin has priority when petitioning the court to be a personal representative. In Washington DC, the surviving spouse, domestic partner, or children have first priority to be appointed personal representative.

If there is no will, the deceased’s next of kin or other interested party files a petition for probate in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia to do the following: 

  • Open the deceased’s estate
  • Serve as personal representative

The personal representative has a lot of responsibilities. Once they are appointed by the court, the personal representative must do the following:

  • Collect the deceased’s assets
  • Pay or resolve any claims or bills
  • Pay or resolve the expenses of the estate proceeding
  • Keep any interested persons informed of the progress of the estate administration
  • File and pay the deceased’s final tax returns
  • Prepare an inventory and accounts
  • Prepare a final account
  • Distribute the assets in accordance with DC’s intestacy laws
  • Close the estate

The probate process takes at least eight months and can take a year or longer depending on the complexity of the estate.

Small estate

Luckily, not all estates need to go through the lengthy probate process discussed above. In DC, if the deceased’s assets have a total value of $40,000 or less, then a small estate proceeding may be opened. 

During this proceeding a personal representative is appointed, claims against the estate are paid, and assets are distributed. This process is much quicker than regular proceedings and generally takes no more than 120 days to complete.

Nonprobate property

Keep in mind that not all property is disposed of via the probate process. Some property automatically transfers ownership upon the deceased’s death and therefore is not subject to probate. This includes life insurance policies with named beneficiaries and retirement accounts.

The role of personal representative comes with many responsibilities. It can be a difficult and overwhelming position, especially when you are simultaneously dealing with the loss of a loved one. If you need assistance, you should consult with a probate attorney. An experienced probate attorney can answer your questions and assist you with the process. 

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

During the probate process, the assets of the estate are distributed. Who typically inherits assets in Washington DC depends on who survives the deceased. Generally, the deceased’s closest living family members will be entitled to inherit assets if there isn’t a will. 

Namely, the deceased’s surviving spouse or domestic partner and/or their descendants. Descendants refer to the direct line of the deceased’s descent such as their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

Surviving spouse or surviving domestic partner

In Washington DC, the deceased’s surviving spouse or surviving domestic partner inherits the following: 

  • The entire intestate estate, if no descendant or parent of the deceased survives the deceased.
  • Two-thirds of any balance of the intestate estate, if the deceased’s surviving descendants are also descendants of the surviving spouse or surviving domestic partner and there is no other descendant of the surviving spouse or surviving domestic partner who survives the deceased.
  • Three-fourths of any balance of the intestate estate, if no descendant of the deceased survives the deceased, but a parent of the deceased survives the deceased.
  • One-half of any balance of the intestate estate, if all of the deceased’s surviving descendants are also descendants of the surviving spouse or surviving domestic partner and the surviving spouse or surviving domestic partner has one or more surviving descendants who are not descendants of the deceased.
  • One-half of any balance of the intestate estate, if one or more of the deceased’s surviving descendants are not descendants of the surviving spouse or surviving domestic partner.

What does all of the above mean? Essentially, the surviving spouse or surviving domestic partner’s share of the estate depends on whether or not the deceased had children and whether or not those children are also the children of the surviving spouse or surviving domestic partner. It also depends on whether or not the deceased had a surviving parent.

Distribution of surplus

Once the estate is distributed to the surviving spouse or surviving domestic partner, the surplus—or the whole surplus when there is no surviving spouse or surviving domestic partner—is distributed as follows: 

  • Equally among the deceased’s children.
  • If the deceased leaves a child and a child of a deceased child, then the child of the deceased child takes the share of their deceased parent.
  • If there are no descendants, then to the deceased’s parents or their survivor.
  • If none of the above survive, then to the deceased’s siblings or their descendants equally.

Washington DC law provides for distribution to surviving relations within the fifth degree.

Escheat

In DC, “[w]hen there is no surviving spouse, surviving domestic partner, or relation of the intestate within the fifth degree…the surplus of real and personal property escheats to the District of Columbia.” Escheats means the assets pass to the state. 

If you have lost a loved one and believe that you are entitled to property under intestate laws, then you should contact the personal representative as soon as possible. Time is of the essence in estate matters. 

Frequently Asked Questions: Dying Without a Will in Washington DC

Estate planning gives you the opportunity to decide how property will be distributed upon your death. Even if you have an estate plan, the loss of a loved one can still leave you with more questions than answers. We are here to help. Below are answers to frequently asked questions about dying without a will in Washington DC. 

If you have additional questions, you should consult with an estate planning attorney. An estate planning attorney can answer your questions and assist you with creating an estate plan that meets your needs. 

If you are a Cake user, then you can utilize our free planning tool to create and save documents that explain your healthcare, legal, funeral, and legacy decisions.

What happens when your parent dies without a will?

The death of a parent can be a difficult experience. While you are experiencing the loss of your parent, you may also be worried about handling the complexities of their estate. Especially if you have been appointed personal representative. 

If your parent dies without a will, much of what happens depends on the following: 

  • Whether or not they left behind a surviving spouse or domestic partner
  • Your relationship to the surviving spouse or domestic partner
  • Whether you have any siblings
  • Whether any of your parent’s children are minor children

The distribution of property is discussed in the earlier section on who typically inherits assets if there isn’t a will. Keep in mind that you may be entitled to the entire estate if you are an only child and your parent dies without a surviving spouse or domestic partner. 

If you are concerned about what will happen when your parent dies, then you should talk to your parent about your concerns. The Cake website has resources to help guide you through the conversation.

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

In Washington DC, a surviving spouse or domestic partner is entitled to priority when appointing a personal representative. The surviving spouse or domestic partner is also entitled to certain allowances and exempt property which will be discussed below.

These allowances and exemptions are in addition to the assets that we discussed in the earlier section on inheriting assets. As we explained in that earlier section, the surviving spouse’s right to assets varies based on whether or not the deceased is survived by descendants or parents.

If you have questions about your rights as a spouse, you should consult with an experienced estate planning attorney. They can answer your questions and give you legal advice. 

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

In Washington DC, the surviving spouse or domestic partner are entitled to certain allowances and exemptions. Allowances and exemptions are property not subject to the claims against the estate and may also have priority over other claims. 

This means that the allowance and/or exemption would get paid out first from the estate. In Washington DC, there is an order of payment that the personal representative must follow if the estate's assets are insufficient to pay all claims in full.

Homestead allowance

In Washington DC, the surviving spouse or surviving domestic partner is entitled to a homestead allowance of $15,000. If there is no surviving spouse or surviving domestic partner, each surviving minor child and each surviving dependent child is entitled to an equal division of the $15,000 homestead allowance amounting to $15,000.

Exempt property

In addition to the homestead allowance, the deceased’s surviving spouse or surviving domestic partner is entitled to additional property from the estate not exceeding $10,000. If there is no surviving spouse or surviving domestic partner, the surviving children are entitled to jointly share in the same value. This exempt property includes the following:

  • Household furniture
  • Automobiles
  • Furnishings
  • Appliances
  • Personal effects

Family allowance

In addition to the homestead allowance and exempt property, the deceased’s surviving spouse or surviving domestic partner and minor children are entitled to “a reasonable allowance in money out of the estate for their maintenance during the period of administration.” 

Who is considered next of kin in Washington DC?

Next of kin is often used to refer to a person’s closest living relatives. In Washington DC, next of kin includes those who have priority to open the deceased’s estate and serve as personal representative. This includes the deceased’s spouse or domestic partner, descendants, parents, and siblings.

Who’s Going to Take It When You Go?

Now is your chance to decide who’s going to take it when you go. Are you ready to start your end-of-life planning? If you are, then the Cake planning platform is here to help. 

You can use the website to proactively plan your end-of-life decisions, including who’s going to take your property when you are gone.

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