When no will is left by a deceased person they are said to have died intestate. Dying intestate means that their property and things are distributed according to the legal rules on intestacy made by the Parliament in the state or territory where they lived. Sometimes a person may have left a will, but for some reason a problem arises so that not all of the property can be disposed of.
Updated 5 October 2019
Renouncing probate is what you can do if you are named as executor in a deceased person’s will, and do not want to take on the role. You are not obliged to, but you need to take steps to put that into effect as soon as practical.
Can an executor resign?
There is no requirement that a named executor in a will must accept the role of executorship, even if you had agreed with the willmaker that you would.
So in other words, can you resign as executor of an estate? Yes, providing you have not intermeddled in the estate already, see further below on what intermeddling means.
If you don’t wish to act when the time comes, and you have not dealt with estate property, you can give up the right to do so. It means you give up your appointment as an executor, commonly called renouncing probate. In renouncing probate you are renouncing the executorship, in other words resigning. It means you renounce or give up your right to apply for probate of the deceased’s will; sometimes expressed as to ‘renounce probate’.
Who can witness or attest the signing of a will for it to be valid in law? And what must they do?
The legal formalities to make a valid will require the will-maker to sign their will in the presence of at least two people, acting as formal witnesses to the event. Executing a will in front of witnesses fulfils a protective function. An unsigned will is not legally valid.
Witnessing a will – key points:
1. The will-maker must sign the will first in front of two or more witnesses, all present at the same time and in the same place.
2. Witnesses must be mentally competent and be able to see the will-maker make their signature, (the attestation) or other sign as appropriate.
3. At least two witnesses having attested the will then sign their names; in confirmation that the will-maker’s signature, made in their presence was genuine.
4. Anyone likely to inherit under the will, ie a beneficiary, including their spouse/partner should not witness it – although the law has changed in some states and in others exceptions are permitted. Seek legal advice.
Dying without a will (intestate) – who inherits?
Intestacy is when you die without leaving a will. You are said to have died “intestate”. In the absence of instructions left in a valid will, who will inherit your property? Succession law contains strict rules to deal with this problem.
This is an outline of the application of the intestacy rules. They specify the order of entitlement as to who inherits and in what proportion, as well as the provision of a sum of money (statutory legacy) for the spouse or partner. More
By B Stead
Why update a will?
Updating a will might seem a troublesome chore, but circumstances can change from the time it was made. The changes might produce unintended and unwanted outcomes in the event of death. Therefore reviewing a will is important to keep its contents in line with intentions.
Regularly reviewing your will every few years or so, in light of changes in your life, is worth doing, as life events and matters such as those outlined below can affect a will. Everyone’s situation is different so in all cases seek professional legal advice from a solicitor providing services in this area.
Why make a will and what can it do?
Dying without leaving a will, or leaving an invalid one, is to die intestate. Dying intestate means property left (the estate) is distributed according to the intestacy law. The intestacy law has been prescribed by legislation as the ‘default’ rules to apply in these circumstances. The problem is that the intestacy formula for distribution may not produce the desired outcome.
Updated 25 October 2019.
Leaving a legally valid will effective under the law
Making a valid will is important to its effectiveness. The word ‘valid’ in law means to be legally effective and having legal force.1 Who else needs to sign a will?
A will documents a person’s intentions for what they want to have happen when they die, see What is a will. It contains their instructions on who is to inherit their property and how, who will administer its disposal and any preferred arrangements for their funeral, . If their intentions are to be legally effective, and ultimately put into effect, the will needs to be valid and comply with the legal rules.
A will is a testamentary document
A will is a legal document, often referred to by lawyers as an ‘instrument’, setting out what a person intends to have happen to their property, (real and personal), and other matters, when they die. It is the legal way to record a person’s instructions and wishes on how they want their property distributed on the event of their death, and who is to responsible for carrying out those wishes. Because it is to take effect only on death, a will is referred to as being ‘testamentary’. A testamentary document or instrument is one which its writer intends, at the time of writing it, to come into effect when they die, and not before. More
By B Stead
If a deceased person has not left a will, or if no document appearing to be a will can be found, they are said to have died intestate. Here is an outline on how succession law rules operate to distribute an intestate person’s property; who is entitled to inherit.
The meaning of ‘intestate’
‘Intestate’ is a defined term in all state and territory legislation dealing with intestacy. It is defined with similar wording throughout, such as that in section 102 of the Succession Act 2006 (NSW):
An intestate is someone who has died and either not left a will or left one which does not dispose effectively by the will all or part of their property. More
Who can make a will to dispose of their property?
Those who can make a will, change or cancel (revoke) a will under state and territory legislation must:
- be an adult, (18 years and over); and
- have the required mental capacity in regard to their testamentary intentions, meaning:
- know (generally) what they own;
- who they want to give it to, any dependents to be provided for;
- be able to weigh up the consequences of their choices, potential claims;
- understand that what they are doing is disposing of their property on death and its effects;
- understand that on signing their will document, what it states will become enforceable when they die.
However ift over to a substitute beneficiary
A “gift over” in a will is when a willmaker has provided that if their intended beneficiary dies or does not survive them within the required time by law, the gift passes over to a substitute beneficiary they have nominated instead to inherit. The substituted beneficiary is really a second recipient chosen to inherit or take the gift should an event occur, here the death of the first or primary beneficiary. Other conditions and contingencies may apply depending on what the will says and surrounding circumstances. See infographic.
The primary legal meaning of “issue”
“Issue” is a technical legal term used in succession and inheritance law and some discretionary trusts. “Issue” is not defined in wills and succession legislation even though it occurs in some legislative provisions. Its legal meaning has been developed under the general (common) law going back to at least 16th century English cases.
Under the general law the “issue” of a person means all of their lineal descendants by blood of every degree, including their children. That is, your “issue” includes not just your children but all of your lineal descendants of all degrees – your children, grandchildren, great-children and so down the line without limit. See infographics. This is the primary legal meaning of issue.
Adopted children – while the primary meaning of issue is about blood relations, legally adopted children can be described as “issue” in certain circumstances and by the operation of the adoption statutes.
Not just anyone can oppose a grant of probate, or contest the validity of a will. You must have what the law calls “standing“. And you only have standing (or locus standi) to oppose a probate application or contest the validity of a will if you have a legal interest in the estate of a deceased person.
Further, it is important to be able to show that the interest is enough so as to entitle you to oppose the grant of probate being applied for; and so have standing to bring an action disputing the validity of the will.
An early inheritance of a mortgage-free home was given to the younger daughter at the time of her marriage. It was well understood by all family members at the time that the other older daughter would receive her inheritance when the last parent died. This would be the parent’s home. Evidence was put of their parents’ expressed wishes to treat their two children fairly and to give each of them a property. They made wills to give effect to this. What could go wrong?
Probate applications require production of the original will. But what if the original can’t be found? Was the will last known in the deceased’s possession?
Sometimes a copy of an executed will (copy will) of the deceased is available. Was it the last will? Short of an intestacy, can a copy will be used in an application for probate?
In certain circumstances a Court will recognise a lost will and admit a copy of it to probate. Some instances where this has been permitted are mentioned below.
Being free to dispose of your property how and to whom you wish, that is the freedom of testamentary disposition is, as a Supreme Court judge said a “prominent feature of the Australian legal system. Its significance is both practical and symbolic and should not be underestimated.”1 Of course, like all freedoms it should be used reasonably and not abused.
An example of the significance of this feature being applied was in a situation where adult children were contesting their mother’s will for more provision. The Court said:
“…a testator is entitled to be unequal in the treatment of her children. Fairness and equality are not required by the law. Within the limits of the law, testators may dispose of their estates as they see fit. Adult children have no automatic right to share in the estate of a parent. Nor do they have an automatic right to equality between them. That may be the system in European countries, including possibly in the Balkans, but it is not the law in Australia. As I have observed on several occasions, subject to the family provision sections of the Succession Act, freedom of testamentary disposition remains an integral part of our law:….”
And following on the Judge added:
“Related to that point is a principle, …..that the courts naturally respect and give deference to the considered judgments of apparently rational and sensible testators.”2
The Court has a wide discretion in its role deciding claims for family provision. In this respect it is worth noting what another judge has said and cited subsequently3:
“The Court’s roles is not to reward an applicant, or to distribute the deceased’s estate according to notions of fairness or equity. Nor is the purpose of the jurisdiction conferred by the Act to correct the hurt feelings, or sense of wrong, felt by an applicant. Rather, the Court’s roles is of a specifc type and goes no further than the making of “adequate” provision in all the circumstances for the “proper” maintenance, education and advancement in life of an applicant.””
1. Goodsell v Wellington  NSWSC 1232, per Hallen J.
2. Kraljevic v Kraljevic  NSWSC 225, per Pembroke J.
3. Hinderry v Hinderry  NSWSC 780, per Bryson J.
21 June 2018, updated 12 February 2019
© BHS Legal
Normally under Australian succession law marriage cancels a will ( revokes in legalese) – unless the will was made in contemplation of marriage.
In addition to marriage, legislative amendments in some states/territories such as South Australia, Tasmania and the ACT, now provide for people contemplating entering into a registered relationship or partnership to make arrangements in their will. However the legislation on this topic of making a will when contemplating marriage varies across the jurisdictions.
It is important to check what the provisions are for where you live if you are planning on making a will ahead of getting married or entering into a relationship. Specific legal advice and assistance should be sought. A brief look follows.
Time limits to contest a will
Time limits under succession law on family provision limit when you can contest a will. Most states and territories family provision legislation provide for some time limit, often the period is six months but it can vary.
The time period might start from the date of death or from when probate is granted. If you are thinking of challenging a deceased person’s will, and you are an eligible person under the law, it is important to be mindful of the time limit. To find out when see the legislation on family provision or testator’s family maintenance in this table, or consult a local solicitor.
But what if the time period has passed? Most legislation provides the Court with a discretion to extend the time within which to make an application, but it is not automatic and the Court’s permission to file must be sought first. Legal assistance is essential.
Contrary intention are words used in Australian succession legislation on wills and the administration of deceased estates. Some examples are given below of the range of matters where the law allows for a willmaker to express a contrary intention in their will to the statutory rule.
Where a provision of succession legislation contains these words, it means that the statutory rule can be displaced, that is not apply in the administration of their estate, if a willmaker has expressed a different intention on the matter in their will as to what they want to have happen. A contrary intention may be expressed in a will or appear in a will.
“The range of “risks” to which a will maker, his or her property, interested parties or members of the legal profession may be subject is probably infinite in its dimensions. Risk cannot be eliminated from life, or, it seems, from death.“
The Hon Justice Lindsay, Equity Division, Supreme Court of New South Wales,
Seminar presentation to the Succession Law Committee of the Law Society of New South Wales, 2013.
The meaning of words and phrases used by a willmaker when leaving a specific gift may adequately express their intentions, at least to them at the time. However sometimes matters connected with the gift may arise down the track during administration of the estate.
These may generate uncertainty for executors as to the right course of action when distributing the estate to the beneficiaries according to the deceased’s will. In a recent Western Australian case1 the executors sought directions from the Court concerning the interpretation of a clause disposing of farmland.
Sometimes an unsigned will is left in situations where the willmaker, in consultation with lawyers, has been in the process of making a new will, but died before the requirements to make a valid legal document were completed.
Leaving such a testamentary document raises important questions. Did the deceased approve of the contents of what is a draft will, and so intended it to be their last will – but simply didn’t get around to executing it according to the legal formalities? Or were they unsure and wanted alterations? Can an unsigned will, that is an unexecuted will, or informal will, as lawyers often call them, even be admitted to probate by the Court? The Court’s dispensing powers are discretionary – it depends on the circumstances in each case.
Inheritance in domestic relationships and stepchildren
A stepchild’s eligibility under the statutory rules for seeking provision from a step-parent’s deceased estate can be difficult.
In a Victorian case1 the executor of a deceased estate applied to the Supreme Court to have a claim for family provision dismissed.
The claim was brought by the adult daughter of the deceased’s former domestic partner, who had died some years before. She had been left out of his will, despite assurances and promises to the contrary. The deceased had left everything to his new domestic partner.
When a stepchild has been left out of the will of a deceased step-parent
In a Queensland case1 a stepchild sought provision out of the estate of his step-mother, a widow. Her husband, and the applicant’s father had pre-deceased her. She had no children of her own, that is no natural children, so no descendants: only the applicant her step-child, and he was an only child.
Before the applicant’s father died, he and his wife each made wills in similar terms. Basically these were all to each other, then on the first to die, in equal proportions to the the applicant and a nephew.
Today is World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. June 15 has been designated by a resolution of the United Nations General Assembly, as a day to raise awareness of the need to protect older people from abuse.
Elder abuse is an important human rights issue yet little is known of its extent, it is under-reported. Not surprising as elders feel vulnerable, are dependent and likely do not have the capacity to do so, or if they did, know to whom to report it. Aging is a time of increasing vulnerability, of varying dependence on others for support of different kinds, depending on individual circumstances. Everyone is entitled to a life of dignity and safety in their old age, free of abuse and exploitation.
Many couples own their home together as joint tenants under a joint tenancy. Under a joint tenancy an important legal consequence to remember with this type of property co-ownership is the legal right of survivorship.
The right of survivorship means that when the first owner dies, their interest in the property is automatically absorbed so that the surviving owner now owns the whole property, see graphic. This is due to the operation of law and is independent of a will.
When the survivor dies, the property then passes according to their will, or if no will left, according to the intestacy rules. For people co-owning property as joint tenants, it is therefore important to review their situations and wills on a regular basis to ensure outcomes on death are what is wanted.
An estranged daughter, one of two sisters and the only children of their deceased mother, were engaged in legal proceedings in a contest over their mother’s deceased estate.1 In The Supreme Court of New South Wales, it was said that
The case provides yet another example of the high level of emotion that is generated in relation to the distribution of the property of a parent, particularly in circumstances where there is said to have been an estrangement between the Plaintiff and the deceased for some years prior to the death of the deceased.
Finding lost wills
When the original will of a deceased person can’t be found, the task of finalising their affairs and administering their estate becomes more complicated, time-consuming and costly. It is therefore worthwhile to undertake methodical searches of the deceased’s residence, thoroughly searching high and low for a will or testamentary document, including the garage, shed and the like. But what else can be done? Some suggestions follow as to where enquiries might be made. More
Some grandparents like to leave something to their grandchildren in their will. If they have step-grandchildren as well, as is increasingly likely these days, are they to be included in the will too?
If grandparents intend step-grandchildren in their extended family to benefit under their will, then to assist their executors for the efficient administration of their estate, it would be helpful if they could make that clear in their will, as a recent New South Wales case has highlighted.
Personal items otherwise referred to as chattels in deceased estates can have important sentimental value. They may be family heirlooms passed down to keep within the family, with unique stories to tell. Personal items may have little commercial value, or maybe of significant monetary worth in the case of jewellery, antiques, artworks and the like.
What might “personal items” mean in succession law? What happens if you don’t leave any instructions as to who takes your personal things and you die intestate? Who is entitled under the law to take your personal items then? More
Costs of the parties in a recent probate litigation case1 from the South Australian Supreme Court, were ordered to be paid from the deceased’s estate. Following the trial Gray J gave reasons for making that costs order.2
Personal possessions, personal items, belongings or effects and similar expressions are often used by willmakers to leave instructions on what they want done with such things.
The executor’s role is to administer the estate of a deceased person in accordance with the terms of their will. The case law shows that occasionally a term causes uncertainty for an executor as to what the willmaker intended in their choice of words or expressions. What did they mean? What did they want to have happen, and how may their executor or personal representative resolve this dilemma with confidence that they are doing the right thing?
Executors seeking advice
If faced with a difficult dilemma as to what to do, executors can apply to the Supreme Court for an opinion, advice or direction on any question respecting the management or administration of trust property, under s 63 of the Trustee Act 1925 (NSW).