How to divide personal items and estate when there is no will?

Lucy in nc asked...

How to divide personal items and estate when there is no will? When someone dies and they have no will, can family members appoint themselves executor of the estate to divide personal items and household, no real estate? Legally, what is supposed to happen with the goods and the bills?

Expert Answer

Barbara Repa, a senior editor, is an attorney, a journalist specializing in aging issues, and the author of Your Rights in the Workplace (Nolo), now in its 10th edition.

Unfortunately, when someone dies without a will, or "intestate," a surviving family member cannot simply declare himself or herself an executor and divvy up the property. A probate court has to appoint a person to do the job. While this may seem like an unnecessary bunch of legal gobbledegook, you can just imagine the fights and name-calling that might happen in some families if the matter went on totally unsupervised.

When there is no will, the property is given to close relatives in a hierarchy set out in state law, and the final bills and debts must be paid off, first.

To find out the exact procedure required in your county, do an Internet search of "probate court" and the name of your county. There may also be good news in the situation you describe: Most probate courts have simplified procedures to follow if there is not much valuable property involved. And most people can handle the matter through the court on their own, without going through the expense of hiring a lawyer for help.