Dying Without a Will in New Jersey: What Happens?


If you have recently lost someone close to you and dear to your heart, we realize that you are undoubtedly weighed down by sadness and grief. Unfortunately, if the deceased wasn’t able to leave a Last Will and Testament, this time in your life just got incrementally more difficult.

When anyone dies without a will in New Jersey, they are said to have died “intestate.” This is the legal term for a deceased person who has not left any testamentary documents regarding the distribution of their assets. Some people mistakenly believe that an intestate decedent’s property will be taken by the state in which they reside. While that is not true, there are state laws that govern who the property should be divided between, and who should make decisions for the estate.

It’s important to know that not all assets are created equal. In fact, many types of assets/property are not passed from person to person via Last Will and Testament at all. These include:

  • Proceeds from a life insurance policy
  • Funds in an IRA, 401(k) or retirement account
  • Property named in a living trust
  • Funds in a POD bank account (payable on death)
  • Real estate, bank accounts, etc held in joint tenancy
  • Stocks, real estate or vehicles with a TOD (transfer on death) deed or title

The above assets will be distributed according to their individual documentation. They should each name a beneficiary or have a joint owner, making their transfer rather clear. Again, the above assets are never included as part of a will, and are inherited outside of the deceased’s estate.

In order to transfer ownership of the rest of the decedent’s assets and property, NJ state law dictates, using “intestate succession” laws to do so.

Since there is no will (in which an executor would have been named), the New Jersey Surrogate’s Court will appoint such a person so that the estate can be properly and fairly distributed. The NJ Surrogate’s Court typically chooses someone from the following list, in order of preference: surviving spouse, surviving partner of a civil union, children, grandchildren, parents, siblings, nieces, nephews.

Ultimately, the person who is selected as the estate’s administrator (executor) will be responsible for the fair and legal distribution of the estate to its heirs and creditors. S/he may be summoned to Surrogate’s Court to explain how or why  assets or property were distributed in a certain way. If mistakes are made by the estate administrator, s/he may be forced to pay for any losses that were suffered by the estate’s heirs and creditors.

Because it is such a big responsibility, many estate administrators choose to hire and work with an attorney during the process of distributing the estate. This is acceptable, and executors are permitted to use money from the estate to pay for this expense.

Distribution of the estate money and property must be completed in a very specific order so as to be legally correct. Before any heirs or survivors receive anything, all outstanding creditors and taxes must be paid. Following this distribution order is critical, because if it is later found that the executor made distribution errors, there’s a good chance s/he would be held personally responsible.

Beyond paying any and all creditors and taxes due, New Jersey laws state who shall be eligible to inherit parts of the estate of an intestate decedent. For more information about the New Jersey laws surrounding death without a will, call or contact our office today. In addition, strongly consider having Veitengruber Law draw up your own Estate Plan, so that your loved ones don’t have questions and conflict after you pass.


Image Credit: Alex Eflon


2 Responses to Dying Without a Will in New Jersey: What Happens?

  1. Pingback: Is a Reverse Mortgage Right for Me? | Veitengruber Law

  2. Pingback: What to do After the Death of a Loved One | Veitengruber Law

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