Most people understand the importance of a will. These legal documents outline a person’s final wishes and how they wish to divide their belongings, real estate and money among heirs. A will also names an administrator or executor, usually a close family member, who the deceased trusts to distribute those assets. So what happens when someone dies without these instructions?

When a person dies without a will, they have died “intestate.” Every state in the U.S. has unique intestate laws that determine how to distribute property in the absence of a will.

Ohio’s intestate laws

Like most states, Ohio’s intestate laws build off the 1990 Uniform Probate Code, with some variation. When a person dies (the decedent), with or without a will, their estate enters probate court. Then an assigned administrator distributes the estate following these steps:

  1. Inventory the estate: The administrator must identify and appraise all probate assets. Non-probate assets include anything owned by the decedent with a named inheritor or beneficiary. These assets include jointly owned property like a family home, insurance policies or retirement benefits. The administrator must have all other assets professionally appraised within three months.
  2. Assemble the assets: Sometimes, other individuals may possess the decedent’s assets at the time of their death. The administrator must locate and collect all assets for proper distribution. Recovery may require one or more lawsuits.
  3. Pay debts and taxes: Creditors have six months to claim a debt from the decedent’s estate. An administrator must then pay all valid claims from the estate’s cash. If the estate does not have enough cash, the administrator will liquidate assets to satisfy those debts. If the estate still lacks funding to pay creditors, the probate court will determine priority.
  4. Distribute the remaining assets: If any assets remain, the administrator must then distribute them among surviving family members and claimants to the estate. These complex rules account for several unique arrangements of surviving family members, but the court will prioritize the decedent’s surviving spouse and children.

Legal counsel can help

Those whose loved one has recently died without a will may want to reach out to a local attorney familiar with probate for advice. A lawyer can help assess an estate, locate non-probate assets or help file a claim with the administrator.