What Happens If You Die Without a Will in NC

by Rania Combs

If you die without a will in North Carolina, North Carolina’s intestacy statutes control who will receive your property.

Citizens of all states have the freedom to make a Will that transfers their property to the people they select after their death. But because it’s so important to have an orderly transfer of property after someone dies, all states create a “Will” for those who die without one.  

In this post I’ll answer some common questions:

What Controls Who Inherits My Property if I Die Without a Will?

North Carolina’s intestacy rules are known as the North Carolina Intestate Succession Act. They provide formulas that dictates who will get your property if you die without a Will. Generally, an heir must survive the deceased person by 120 hours to inherit under the intestacy statutes.

The statutory formulas are rigid and do not consider your individual wishes and unique circumstances. As such, they can result in your property passing in a manner that is contrary to what you would have wanted.

Keep in mind that these rules affect your probate estate. You likely have assets that will pass outside of probate to beneficiaries without regard to a Will or intestacy statutes.

For example, in North Carolina, married couples usually own real estate as tenants by the entirety. When one spouse dies, the survivor inherits the deceased spouse’s share automatically. Additionally, you may have insurance policies or retirement plans on which you have appointed beneficiaries. Those assets will pass to their intended beneficiaries regardless of these rules.

Below is a summary of North Carolina’s intestacy laws.

Who Inherits When Single Persons with No Descendants Die Without a Will in North Carolina?

If you are a single person and have no descendants, your parents will inherit your property in equal shares. Your surviving parent will receive all your property if one of your parents dies before you.

If neither of your parents survive you, then your siblings (or the descendants of your deceased siblings) will inherit your property.

If you are single, have no surviving descendants, and no surviving parents, surviving siblings, or nieces or nephews, then your property will be split into two halves. One-half of your property will pass to and through your maternal grandparents, and the other half will pass to and through your paternal grandparents. If one side of the family has died out, the side of the family that has surviving members will inherit everything.

Who Inherits When Single Persons with Children Die Without a Will?

If you have one child who survives you, your surviving child will inherit all your property.

If you have two or more children, who all survive you, they will all share your property equally. However, if one or more or more of your children predecease you, the distribution gets trickier.  

  • Suppose John had three children, Tom, Dick, and Harry, but Tom dies before John. Suppose Tom had a couple of surviving children, Jack and Jill. In this case, Dick and Harry would each receive a third of John’s property, and Jack and Jill would share the third that would have passed to Tom.
  • But what if Tom and Dick both predeceased John, and Dick had one child, Mary, who survived him. In this case, Harry would receive a third of the property, but since the remaining beneficiaries are all John’s grandchildren, Jack, Jill, and Mary would each receive an equal share of the remaining two-thirds of the property.

Who Inherits When Married Persons Die Without a Will in North Carolina?

Most people assume that if you are married and die without a Will, all your property will pass to your surviving spouse. That’s not always the case.

If you die married, the distribution of your other property will depend on whether the property is real property or personal property, and whether you have surviving parents or children.

Real Property

If you die without a Will, but don’t have children or surviving parents, all your real property will pass to your surviving spouse. That’s not the case if you have surviving children or surviving parents.

If you do not have any children but at least one of your parents survives you, then one-half of your real property will pass to your spouse. The other one-half interest will pass to your parents.

What happens if you have children? Well, one child or the descendants of that child survive you, your spouse will receive a one-half interest in your property, but the other half will pass to your child or the descendant of that child.

Your surviving spouse will inherit a smaller share if you have more than one child. If you have two or more children or descendants of any children, then your spouse will inherit 1/3 undivided interest in your real property, and your children will inherit the rest.

Personal Property

If you die without a Will, but don’t have children or surviving parents, your spouse will inherit all your personal property. That’s not the case if you have surviving parents or children.

If you do not have children, but both or either of your parents survive you, then your spouse receives the first $100,000 in value plus one-half of the balance of the personal property. Surviving parents would inherit the remainder.

What happens if you have children? If one child or descendants of one child survive you, your spouse will inherit the first $60,000 in of personal property plus one-half of the balance of the property. Your children or their descendants will inherit the remainder.

But if more than one child survives you, then your spouse inherits the first $60,000 in value but only one-third of the balance of the personal property. Your children or their descendants will inherit the remaining personal property.

What Happens If You Don’t Have Surviving Blood Relatives?

Perhaps you’re an only child, unmarried, and the last surviving member of both your parents’ bloodline. If you don’t have any surviving blood relatives and you die without a Will, your estate will pass to the State of North Carolina.

Why You Need a Will

Intestacy can be problematic for many people. For example, suppose you are single but plan to marry your fiancé with whom you live. If you die without a Will, your fiancé would not receive your estate, something you likely would have wanted. Or perhaps you have a strained relationship with one or more of your parents. You may have preferred your estate to pass to a friend or a charity. That wouldn’t matter either. Your parents would inherit your property anyway.

Surviving spouses, who assume they will inherit all their spouse’s property after they die, are usually shocked to discover that is not the case. This can be especially catastrophic in situations where there is a contentious relationship with the deceased spouse’s parents, or in blended family situations where there is an acrimonious relationship with stepchildren.

In situations where children are minors, not having a Will means the court Will appoint a guardian to hold the property your children inherit. The guardian will need to file annual accountings, which can be time-consuming and costly. Additionally, the guardian would not be permitted to distribute principal for the child’s support or education unless evidence existed that your spouse lacked sufficient assets to provide support. Finally, your children would receive that property on their 18th birthday, when they may not have the wisdom or maturity to handle it.

If you want the freedom to decide who will receive your property when you die, you need a Will.

This article was originally published on January 2, 2022 and updated on July 23, 2023.

About Rania

Rania graduated magna cum laude from South Texas College of Law Houston and is the founder of Rania Combs Law, PLLC. She has been licensed to practice law since 1994 and enjoys helping clients in Texas and North Carolina create estate plans that give them peace of mind.

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  1. rose schillaci

    December 26, 2022 at 12:59pm

    I had a will done 15 years ago in Chicago. Will that be honor in North Carolina?

    1. Rania Combs

      January 2, 2023 at 1:47pm

      Generally, if the Will met the requirements of a valid Will in the state where you signed it, it will likely be deemed valid in North Carolina. However, just because an out-of-state Will can be admitted to probate does not mean that it will work as efficiently as one drafted to take advantage of North Carolina’s laws. Additionally, I generally recommend reviewing one’s estate planning documents every 3 to 5 years to ensure they keep up with changing laws and circumstances. Therefore, I recommend that you engage an estate planning lawyer to review your Will and confirm that it still accomplishes your estate planning goals.

  2. Linda D Stevenson

    February 11, 2023 at 2:27pm

    My Mother died last month without a will. I am her only surviving child. My deceased brother’s children are demanding the land that the deeds have their Father’s name and their names. They are blocking me being declared the Administrator.

    1. Rania Combs

      April 18, 2023 at 2:53pm

      Children of a deceased child are entitled to their deceased parent’s share under the intestacy statutes.