Who Gets the Assets if Your Spouse Dies Without a Will? You Might be Surprised.

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The financial planner thought he knew everything.  And with that confidence, he downloaded a form will. It wasn’t a bad will, actually. But he made one enormous mistake: he didn’t sign it right.

So when he died, his wife went to an attorney to find out how she would collect everything. She got a shock: she wasn’t going to. The will was useless. Void. Non-existent. Consequently, the law says that she and the child had to split the assets. The scorecard: Child: 50%. Mother 50%. Game, set, match.

Would it matter if it was his child, and not their child? Not a whit. Could they fudge the distribution? Nope.

What if parent and child didn’t get along? Doesn’t matter. They were chained legally to 50% each. They may not have spoken in years . . . but now they sure were going to.

The key: if the once-good will is not good now, or if there’s no will, then the spouse and the children divide the estate assets equally. Example: Remarried mother has two children from her first marriage. She dies with a faux will. We have three people, right? Two kids plus spouse. Since the will is garbage, each child inherits one-third of the dead mother’s assets. The surviving husband gets the final one-third.

There’s a small legal protection for the surviving spouse: he or she can’t get less than one-third.

What this means: imagine that Snow White married the prince, they adopted the seven dwarfs, and then he died sans will. Snow White gets one-third of the prince’s assets, and the seven dwarfs split the other two-thirds. Not too bad, right? Well, it is pretty bad: Doc-through-Dopey together get twice as much as Snow White. She certainly won’t live happily ever after.

The situation gets more complicated if a minor child is getting a piece. The surviving parent may not be appointed the legal guardian for the receiving child; being mother or father isn’t decisive. Periodic inventories can be required. And the child gets his or her share as a much-too-young age.

So do you really want to share ownership of your house equally with two teenage kids? It can (and would) happen.

What else can trigger this besides the financial planner’s defective signing? If particular events happen with a lawyer-drawn will. And of course, if there’s no will.

Consider the parent who recently remarried, who didn’t do a new will in the midst of planning the wedding and honeymoon.

How about the parents who did the right documents for their children, but later decided to have or adopt one more . . . and the old will didn’t contemplate more kids.

Or the person who typed up an old will, or copied a neighbor’s will. The document may have had the title “Will” at the top, but it wasn’t any good.

In each of these examples, the surviving spouse took it in the ear: take a half, take a third. Do not take all, do not pass “Go,” do not collect even an extra $200.

The bottom line: having a document-gone-bad, or no document, can mean you’ll be looking to your kids (or your dead spouse’s kids) for spending money, instead of the other way around.