Many people erroneously assume that when one spouse dies, the other spouse receives all of the remaining assets; this is often not true and frequently results in unintentional disinheritance of the surviving spouse.
In cases where a couple shares a home but only one spouse’s name is on it, the home will not automatically pass to the surviving person, if his or her name is not on the title. Take, for example, a case of a husband and wife where the husband purchased a home prior to his marriage, and consequently only his name is on the title (although both parties resided there, and shared expenses, during the marriage). Should the husband pass away before his wife, the home will not automatically pass to her by “right of survivorship”. Instead, it will become part of his probate estate. This means that there will need to be a court probate case opened and an executor appointed. If the husband had a will, the executor would be the person he nominated in his will who would carry out the testator’s instructions regarding disposition of the assets. If he did not have a will, state statutes, known as intestacy laws, would provide who has priority to inherit the assets.
In our example, if the husband had a will then the house would pass to whomever is to receive his assets pursuant to that will. That may very well be his wife, even if her name is not on the title.
If he dies without a will, state laws will determine who is entitled to the home. Many states have rules that would provide only a portion of the estate to the surviving spouse. If the deceased person has children, even if children of the current marriage, local laws might grant a portion of the estate to those children. If this is a second marriage, children from the prior marriage may be entitled to more of the estate. If this is indeed the case, the surviving spouse may be forced to leave the home, even if she had contributed to home expenses during the course of the marriage.
Laws of inheritance are complex, and without proper planning, surviving loved ones may be subjected to unintended expense, delays and legal hardships. If you share a residence with a significant other or spouse, you should consult with an attorney to determine the best course of action after taking into account your unique personal situation and goals. There may be simple ways to ensure your wishes are carried out and avoid having to probate your partner’s estate at death.