The danger of dying without a will

Published 01 May 2014

While the importance of preparing your estate for the future is widely accepted necessity, it can difficult to predict when we will die and sometimes a family member will pass without a valid will.

When a person dies without a will, they are said to have died “intestate”. This can lead to inheritance disputes as the official lines of succession do not account for personal relationships and prior planning.

If a family member has died intestate, the NSW Supreme Court follows a particular formula to decide how to distribute the deceased’s estate. This includes researching the family tree to determine the individual’s closest relations.

The challenges of intestacy 

For de facto partners and unrelated dependants, this is a process that can often lead to the need to lodge a family provisional claim. It is then up to the individual to prove to the Supreme Court that they are eligible to make a provisional claim. This involves proving the deceased had a moral obligation to financially care for you and providing evidence of your relationship.

Inheritance disputes are common when somebody dies without a will, particularly when the estate is of a substantial size. When significant assets are being distributed, or held by the state, individuals from all walks of life may try to lay a claim on the estate.

An example of this is when eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes passed away in 1976. Mr Hughes left an estate worth $2.5 billion but left no direct decedents and no will. A battle then ensued for the Hughes estate, eventually splitting evenly to each of his eleven cousins. However, the matter of his estate was not settled for another 34 years!

This is because a man previously unknown by Hughes’ family came forward claiming he found a will leaving him $156 million from the Hughes estate. The handwritten will had been discovered in the headquarters of the Utah branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

This outlandish claim was supposedly the result of the claimant helping a dishevelled Hughes find his hotel in Las Vegas years before his death. In 1978, the discovered will was ruled a forgery. However, this was not the end of the inheritance dispute. The claimant continued to fight for his share of the estate, with the matter not being resolved until January 9, 2007 when a US judge dismissed the claimant’s lawsuit.

In 2010, Howard Hughes’ estate was finally settled as his court appointed heirs received the final payout from his assets. This lengthy process shows how complicated and challenging inheritance disputes can become when a will is not present.

If a family member has died without a will and you believe you are not being adequately provided for, contact a contesting 

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