My spouse died with no will. What does this mean?

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When an individual dies intestate — meaning no will or trust to bequeath assets — state law determines how the assets are divided among potential heirs. For married couples with children, it is not automatic that the surviving spouse inherits all assets.
Only about a third of all states have laws specifying that assets owned by the deceased are automatically inherited by the surviving spouse. In the remaining states, the surviving spouse may inherit between one-third and one-half of the assets, with the remainder divided among surviving children, if applicable. In certain instances, the spouse and surviving children each may get equal shares. Surviving children may include those from a prior marriage.
If your late spouse had an employer-sponsored retirement plan at work, according to federal law, your late spouse was required to name you as beneficiary unless you waived that right in writing. If you and your spouse owned a residence as joint tenants, you inherit the house. The same is true for a jointly owned brokerage account. IRAs are inherited by whoever was named beneficiary, as are proceeds from life insurance policies.

Tax issues

When settling the estate, it's important to determine your tax liability to the federal government and also to the state where you live. At the federal level, the surviving spouse can typically inherit an unlimited amount of assets without paying the federal estate tax. Still, you may need to consult an attorney with knowledge of federal estate planning law as well as estate planning law governing the state in which you live. Also, consider drafting a will. Given the complexity of estate planning laws, a will is likely to provide you with a greater degree of control over how your assets are bequeathed to heirs.

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