Intestacy: the question of inheritance


Intestacy laws determine how a deceased person’s assets are to be distributed when they die without leaving a valid will. A deceased’s assets is called his or her estate.

In principle, intestacy laws ensure that spouses, civil partners, and close relatives of the deceased are still able to inherit from the estate.

Who can inherit?

There are restrictions about who can inherit when a person dies intestate. A spouse or civil partner, for example, must have survived the deceased by 28 days to be classified as a beneficiary.

People who can inherit under intestacy are the following:

  • Spouses or civil partners
  • Children
  • Parents
  • Siblings or their descendants
  • Grandparents
  • Aunts/uncles or their descendants.

You cannot inherit even if any of the following cases apply:

  • You were not a spouse or a civil partner to the deceased but lived with them
  • You were a close friend
  • You are a relation by marriage
  • You were a carer for the deceased.

How does it work?

Spouses and civil partners, without children

If the deceased person is survived by a spouse or civil partner, but not by any children, then the spouse/civil partner will inherit the entirety of the estate. Anything left to a spouse or civil partner is exempt from inheritance tax.

Example: Mr Brown dies. He is married to Mrs Brown and has no children. Mrs Brown inherits his half of their house and all of his savings of £50,000.

Spouses and civil partners, with children

Should the deceased leave behind children as well (including illegitimate and legally-adopted children), the spouse/civil partner will inherit all personal possessions, the first £322,000 of the estate (known as the Statutory Legacy) and half of the remaining estate.

The children or their descendants, will inherit the other half of the remaining estate. If the value of the assets passing to beneficiaries other than the spouse/civil partner is above £325,000, inheritance tax at 40% will be payable on the sum over £325,000.

Example: Mrs Miller dies. She is married to Mr Miller and has two children, one of which is legally adopted. Mr Miller inherits her personal possessions, the £322,000 Statutory Legacy and half of the estate of the remainder. Their two children will take an equal share of the remaining half of the estate.

As all of the assets passing to Mr Miller are exempt for inheritance purposes, and the sum passing to Mrs Miller’s children is less than £325,000, there will be no inheritance tax to pay.

Close relatives

If the deceased person does not leave behind a spouse or civil partner, the assets will be distributed to close relatives in order of priority.

They will be distributed to relatives in the following order:

  • Children (or their descendants)
  • Parents of the deceased
  • Full siblings (or their descendants)
  • Half siblings (or their descendants)
  • Grandparents
  • Full aunts/uncles (or their descendants)
  • Half aunts/uncles (or their descendants)

If there is no spouse or civil partner, the assets will be split equally among the children of the descendants. If there is neither a spouse or civil partner nor children or grandchildren, the assets go to the surviving parents of the deceased, and so forth.

If the deceased is not survived by anybody, their assets are classified as ownerless property or ‘bona vacantia.’ In these circumstances, the entire estate will pass to the Crown.

13 May 2024

Further reading:

Do you know where your pensions are?

Citizens Advice: Intestacy