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How estate administration is affected by not having a will

The majority of New Jersey residents are aware that a will establishes how and to whom a person's estate will be distributed after death.  A will guides estate administration.  Not having a will complicates matters and puts the distribution of assets squarely in the hands of the Surrogate's Court, which is guided by state law instead of the wishes of the decedent.

When an individual has a will, the testator can appoint a person or persons to manage the estate. This is the person who will take gather the estate assets, arrange for payment of debts. Assets may be sold, as necessary, to pay those debts and other expenses of the estate.  This executor also files documents with the court and any state and federal estate tax returns as required. 

If a person does not have a will, an administrator is typically appointed to take care of these estate administration responsibilities, but that selection is made by the court.  The court supervises the administration of the estate through the executor or administrator appointed by the court.  Debts are paid and assets are distributed to surviving relatives in accordance with New Jersey law. 

In the absence of a will, a person who may not have been chosen by the decedent could inherit his or her property.  Further, only relatives are considered for distribution.  If the individual would have left any property to a friend or a beloved charity, that will not happen without a will.

Where it is true that a person's property will get distributed regardless of whether he or she has a will, it is not advisable.  Dying without a will not only potentially robs family members, friends and charities of an inheritance, but also increases the costs associated with estate administration.  Even if state law and the desires of the decedent happen to be the same, the value of the estate can be greatly diminished through the extra expenses and additional taxes that may be due. Those expenses could likely have been reduced through the execution of a will, resulting in heirs receiving the maximum amount possible from a loved one's estate.

Source: FindLaw, "Estate Administration: The Will After Death", , Oct. 11, 2014

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