[Article published in the Herts Advertiser (Harpenden Issue) 8th May 2014]
Intestacy is when someone dies without leaving a valid will. It's a common misconception that married people and civil partners automatically inherit everything if their spouse or partner dies without leaving a will. That's not how it works. The Rules of Intestacy provide the framework for the amounts that can be inherited and they can be very harsh, especially in modern family situations.
Let's take Janet and John, a couple with two young children, Peter aged 10 and Polly aged 7. They are not married but have been living together for 15 years. They live in a 3-bedroom house in Harpenden that's worth £500,000, which they jointly own as 'tenants in common'; Janet also has £50,000 of savings and investments in her own name. Neither has made a will.
If Janet dies, John would not be legally entitled to anything. If they owned the house as 'joint tenants', then John would automatically inherit the home but not Janet's savings.
If they were married, John would automatically inherit, but only up to £250,000 of Janet's estate plus a life interest in half of the remainder. That means John would inherit Janet's 50% share of the home plus a life interest on £25,000 of savings. However, he wouldn’t be able to access the capital; he would only get the interest on it during his lifetime. The remaining £25,000 is inherited by the children equally and when John dies they will inherit his £25,000 share.
Married or not, should Janet and John both die, then the courts would decide on the guardians for Peter and Polly. Let's hope they don't decide on Janet's mean-spirited sister Cruella!
There are no rights of inheritance whatsoever for unmarried couples, same-sex partners not in a civil partnership, relations by marriage such as step-children, close friends or carers. Married or civil partners inherit only if they are actually married or in a civil partnership at the time of death. So if you have separated and your ex-partner now lives with someone else, they can still inherit automatically.
Putting money away for a rainy day and making sensible decisions about financial planning, are all very well, but if there's no will after you die, then it could all go to the wrong person.
So although it's easy to put off making a will, it is still the only way to ensure your wishes aren't ignored when you die.