How Does Inheritance Work When There is No Will?

Family Tree Diagram

Ohio, like other states, has laws that dictate how a the estate of a deceased person (decedent) passes when there is no will. These laws, called “laws of intestate succession,” guide courts, and administrators, as to how the decedent’s assets should be distributed. How does Ohio inheritance work when there is no will?

For the most part, laws of intestate succession try to approximate what most people would intend if they had made a will. If there is a spouse and children, for instance, they will inherit rather than a half-sibling or a first cousin once removed. (If you would prefer your first cousin once removed inherit from you instead of your spouse, you had better get yourself an estate plan—or a divorce lawyer.)

Things get considerably more complicated, though, when there are no close relatives, or when heirs are not of the same degree of relation to the deceased. It’s easy to figure out what to do when the deceased is survived by three adult children, but no spouse: the estate is divided into three equal shares. But what if one of those adult children has died, leaving three children of his own? Or what if the deceased had no surviving spouse, children, grandchildren, siblings, parents, or grandparents?

Intestate Succession Issues in Ohio

A fairly common situation, sadly, is for an elderly widowed parent to survive one or more adult children, who may have been survived by children of their own. Imagine a scenario in which Adam, an older man, dies survived by his children Beth and Charles, and grandchildren Elsa and Faith, children of Adam’s deceased son Donald. Adam had no will. How is his estate divided? Do Beth, Charles, Elsa, and Faith each take one-fourth of the estate? Or do Beth and Charles each take one-third, with Elsa and Faith sharing the one-third that would have gone to their father, Donald? In Ohio, Elsa and Faith would divide the one-third share that would have gone to Donald had he survived Adam under Ohio Revised Code Section 2105.13.

What if Donald had conceived a baby (George), with his wife shortly before his death, and that baby was born after Adam’s death? Would George inherit from Adam’s estate? According to Ohio Revised Code Section 2105.14, he might. So long as George is a lineal (direct) descendant of Adam, was born within 300 days of Adam’s death, and survives Adam for 120 hours (or, if born after Adam’s death, survives for 120 hours after birth), George will inherit. He, Elsa, and Faith would then divide the one-third share of Adam’s estate that Donald would have received had he been alive.

Now imagine that Adam was a young man who had no children, no spouse, no siblings, and no surviving parents or grandparents. His parents were only children, so he had no aunts, uncles, or first cousins. His nearest relatives were a second cousin, Bill, the grandson of his grandmother’s sister; and a great uncle, Calvin, who was the brother of his grandfather. Do Bill and Calvin share the estate?

Not in Ohio. In Ohio, if the deceased has no surviving grandparents or direct descendants of grandparents, the estate goes to his next of kin. Neither Bill nor Calvin are the direct descendants of Adam’s grandparents. Calvin is more closely related to Adam (sibling of a grandparent) than Bill (grandson of a grandparent’s sibling). Calvin would take Adam’s entire estate under Ohio law—specifically, Ohio Revised Code Section 2105.(6)(I).

Now let’s suppose that Adam had died survived only by two cousins; a first cousin, Becky, on his father’s side, and a first cousin once removed, Connor, the grandson of his mother’s sister. Since Becky is the more closely-related cousin, she inherits the entire estate, right? Wrong. Under Ohio law, since Becky and Connor are both direct descendants of Adam’s grandparents, one-half of the estate would go to the survivor(s) of the maternal grandparents, and one-half to the survivor(s) of the paternal grandparents.

Confused? Don’t feel bad. Many Ohio probate attorneys have to think twice about how inheritance works when there is no will and no close relatives.

Make Life Easier for Your Heirs

Even if you think you know who would inherit from you under Ohio law, it is better to have an estate plan than to rely on state law to distribute your estate. It can be time consuming and costly to take the steps required to make sure all potential heirs are notified of a probate case, and that everyone’s rights are protected.

Instead, with a small investment of time and money, you can ensure that your estate passes exactly as you want it to, rather than as the state thinks best. Consult an experienced Ohio probate attorney to discuss your estate planning needs. If you plan carefully, you can even arrange to keep your estate out of probate altogether.