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Who inherits if you don’t have a will?

Jennifer Jackson, Avant Law - Partner, Head of Estate Planning & Probate

Wednesday, 18 January 2023

Estate Planning

Will you let the government decide who gets your assets?

Key takeaways

If you don't have a will, then when you die:‍

  • your assets are distributed according to a formula set out in legislation;
  • the court will decide who administers your estate;
  • the additional administrative steps required will usually result in higher costs being incurred, reducing the amount left for your beneficiaries.

Thankfully, most people will have plenty of time to get a will put in place before they pass away. But we don't know exactly when our last day will be or if we will lose capacity before we can get our affairs in order.

Who can make a will?

The states and territories in Australia are fairly consistent about who can make a will, with the general requirements being that you must:‍

  • be over 18 years of age (or married if under 18 years of age);
  • have testamentary capacity, which essentially means that you are not suffering from any delusion or disorder of the mind that impacts on your understanding of:

    o what a will is for;

    o the general nature and extent of your assets; and

    o who would normally be expected to benefit from your estate.

Intestacy rules

Many people believe that if you die without a will, your entire estate goes to your closest next of kin. However, this will not always be the case.

Dying without a valid will in place is called dying “intestate” and each state and territory has legislation setting out the intestacy rules as to who will receive your estate.

The intestacy rules generally provide that your estate will pass in a cascading fashion, exhausting each stage before moving to the next, as follows (with some slight differences among the states and territories):

  • all to your spouse/partner if you have no children;
  • shared between spouse/partner and children;
  • to your children equally if you have no spouse/partner;
  • to parents;
  • to siblings;
  • to nieces and nephews;
  • to grandparents;
  • to aunts and uncles;
  • to first cousins.

Once the list that applies to your state or territory has been exhausted, your estate will pass to the government.

Unintended consequences?

The intestacy rules can result in estates being distributed in unexpected (and perhaps alarming) ways, as outlined in the examples below:

  • The woman who wanted all of her estate to pass to her current partner as most of her assets had been acquired during their relationship.  However, she had not yet divorced her “ex” husband (she was fearful of triggering his volatile behaviour). Not having a valid will in place when she died meant that her estate was shared between her partner and her husband.
  • The husband who died, expecting that his wife of 40 years would inherit his estate, including the $2m family home which was his biggest asset. However, the home had to be sold, and after the children from the husband’s first marriage got their share under the intestacy rules, the wife was left with around $1.3m to buy a new home and fund her needs.
  • The son who wanted his estate to pass solely to his mother. He had no spouse or children and had never known his father (who had left shortly before the son’s birth). Because the son did not have a will in place when he tragically died in a workplace accident, 50% of his estate went to his estranged father.

We can help you

If you have any questions, or would like more information about how we can assist you or your practice, please call 1800 867 113, or to organise a confidential discussion at a time that suits you, please click here 

About the author

Jennifer Jackson

Jennifer Jackson leads the estate planning team at Avant Law. Jennifer has over 15 years’ experience providing estate planning and structuring advice to clients and their financial advisers and accountants. Jennifer takes the time to work through the issues with her clients, to identify what matters most to them in that often-difficult conversation about planning for their death or loss of capacity.  She brings a wealth of life experience and a calm, practical and considered approach to handling legal matters, which her client’s value. In addition to working directly with clients, Jennifer presents to both professional and community groups on topics relating to her area of practice.


The information in this article does not constitute legal advice or other professional advice and should not be relied upon as such. It is intended only to provide a summary and general overview on matters of interest and it is not intended to be comprehensive. You should seek legal or other professional advice before acting or relying on any of this content. The information in this article is current to 19 January 2023. Liability limited by a scheme approved under Professional Standards Legislation. Legal practitioners employed by Avant Law Pty Limited are members of the scheme. © Avant Mutual Group Limited 2023

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