What Happens When Someone Dies and Doesn’t Have Family?

Updated

Certified Care Manager, Aging Life Care Professional, and National Master Guardian Emeritus

Dying without a family is not as unusual as you may think it is. Most of us believe that someone will survive us, but that isn’t always the case. People die “before their time” due to unforeseen circumstances such as illness, accidents, or terminal diagnoses.

If there are no known heirs, the court appoints a professional called an administrator who has the job of finding the deceased's heirs. If professional investigators search and find no next of kin, the court handles the estate. 

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Since no one can predict the future, the best way to protect yourself and your estate is to plan ahead. Waiting too long can result in death without family. An end-of-life planning checklist is the best way to start thinking about the possibility of having no family when you die. 

Certainly, consider family members you do have that may be distant and not in contact with you. If you’re an only child with few relatives, you’ll want to make contingency plans for assigning trustee duties. If you’re already without family, we’ll walk you through the steps to get your affairs in order. 

What Happens After Someone Without a Family Dies

When someone dies without family or next of kin, what happens next depends entirely on whether the person made arrangements for that fact or did not plan at all. If you don’t have a family, you may think there aren’t options to protect and distribute your estate. But there are, and we’ll cover those in the next section. 

First, let’s look at what happens if someone dies without family and has made no arrangements for their estate. 

Dying intestate 

Dying intestate means dying without a will. Under ordinary circumstances, any assets, property, and belongings go to surviving relatives, and the state will make every effort to find surviving relatives. But if the state discovers no family, the estate (if there is one) will revert to the state. 

If you die and have no money or relatives, the county or state is responsible for paying for your burial or cremation. Each state designates where your money goes. For some, it’s the school system, and other states have other designations. 

If you die intestate and have assets, the court will attempt to find a relative to act as your representative. If they locate several distant relatives, each state has a succession system to determine who is entitled to inherit what you have. If no relative is located, the state appraises your property and other accounts, pays debts, etc. This process is called probate

Your body

There’s no uniform law or rule regarding an unclaimed body. Each state, and in some cases, individual counties, have laws regarding plans for the body of someone who has died with no instructions and no family and remains unclaimed. 

Most states require the government to make a good-faith effort to locate the next of kin. Some states consider a few days sufficient for the search, while others say the body must be held for a month. The body can only be buried or cremated if they find no next of kin in that amount of time.

If no next of kin or anyone else is found to claim the body, then most states cremate the body. If you have money when you die, the state will use those funds for all costs associated with a burial. If there are no funds, the state or county will pay for an inexpensive funeral. You can see how important it is to state in writing whether you would prefer cremation or burial. 

Your belongings

Without a will or family to claim your belongings, the state will assume the role of disposing of or selling your belongings. Any proceeds would go to the state where you live if you have made no arrangements for any other option. Assessing what you own and making decisions about your belongings before you die allows you to give items to friends or organizations.

How Can Someone Without Family Get Their Affairs and End-of-life Plan in Order?

Even without family, there are steps you can take to get your affairs and end-of-life plans in order. Consider viewing family in a broader sense than next of kin. Think about the important people in your life, including close friends, church, neighbors, etc.

If there is no one you feel comfortable including in your end-of-life planning, there are other options to ensure that your wishes are honored, and your estate will go to whomever you designate. There are some options for the distribution of your money and property, even without a family. 

Meet with an estate planning attorney

If you can afford it, meeting with an experienced estate planning attorney is the most efficient way to get your affairs in order. An attorney will know your particular state requirements for advance directives. They will also have information about possible charitable donations and laws on leaving your estate to a non-relative should you have no family. An attorney can also help you with these next steps.

A will

The first step is to write a will. You can write a will online for a nominal cost, and the process is relatively straightforward. You may be thinking about who to leave your estate and belongings to if you have no family. Consider charities, your church, or friends as recipients of your estate. If you have little money or real property, think about donating your personal belongings to a local organization. 

Spell out those wishes in your will. If possible, designate a friend, with their permission, to distribute your belongings after you’re gone. Make sure someone has a copy of the will. If you have an attorney, they will keep a copy for you. 

Living will

A living will is a document that states what end-of-life measures and care you desire. Without those wishes in writing, medical personnel is obligated to save your life regardless of the consequences. 

Think about the circumstances under which you’d want specific interventions such as intubation, tube feeding, or a ventilator. What kind of care do you want, and if you become incapacitated, is there a person or entity you’d like to be your guardian and conservator? 

Health care power of attorney

A healthcare power of attorney is a person you designate to carry out your medical wishes if you cannot do so. Without family, is there a friend who would be willing to assume this responsibility? If so, talk with them about the level of commitment this entails. Then go through the details of your living will. 

You can appoint almost anyone as your health care power of attorney, except that some states prohibit a health care provider or their employees as appointees. Other possibilities include a geriatric care manager, attorney, or a private guardianship company. 

Consider a trust

There are different types of trusts, but the advantage of having a trust is the ability to grant someone else the authority when you die to disburse your assets. Without family, you can use a bank or private company to set up a trust and be assured that they will handle your estate ethically and legally. The trust’s executor is the person who agrees to use funds to pay your bills and manage your funeral. 

Guardianship and conservatorship

Guardianship and conservatorship are terms used to describe a person appointed to handle your healthcare and finances if you become incapacitated. Incapacity can occur due to many conditions, including dementia, a medical event or disease, drug use, or alcoholism. Only the courts can bestow guardianship and conservatorship. 

Although these terms apply when you’re alive, it’s still important to designate a guardian. If you have no family but have the funds to support a private guardianship, you can contact a private company to assume these duties. Once you die, the company has the responsibility of settling your estate and reporting to the court. 

Fill out a POLST

A POLST (physician’s order for life-sustaining treatment) is a document that directs healthcare providers if you are near death or have a terminal condition. The document requires a physician’s signature, but you do not need the family to carry out your directive since the purpose is to guide healthcare providers.  

Organ donation

If you haven’t made organ donation arrangements and have no family, your remains will likely be cremated or buried. However, some states permit an unclaimed body to be used for medical science and research.

Even if you have no family and wish to donate your organs or body, you can fill out the necessary paperwork to ensure that. Every state has a different process for making organ or body donations. 

Dying Without Family 

Dying without family sounds like a lonely journey, but it doesn’t have to be. Now is the time to get your affairs in order and firm up the connections that you do have with other people. Think about expanding your definition of family to leave a legacy to those who are important to you.

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