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.
What they own, their property is then distributed according to the legal rules on intestacy found in legislation made by Parliaments in each state and territory. These rules are based on a hierarchical order of family members, relatives of the deceased.
This is an outline on how these succession law rules operate to distribute an intestate person’s property to those the law deems 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.
For other jurisdictions find links to the state/territory legislation containing the intestacy rules here. The statutes listed under ‘Intestacy’ contain legislative rules when no will has been left.
Statutory order of entitlement – who is entitled to inherit?
The legal rules in the legislation sets out an order of entitlement as to who can take from the deceased estate. The statutory order is based along kinship or blood family lines. Spouses, de facto spouses, partners or registered partners and those in a domestic relationship persons, (the terminology can vary slightly) and issue (see what the legal term “issue” means here), receive highest priority under the rules.
The situation where a will does not completely dispose of a person’s property can arise for a number of reasons too many and varied to mention here. Only property which is owned personally, in an individual name can be disposed of by will. Read more about what can and can’t be disposed of by will here.
Administering a person’s estate when they did not leave a will
Practically it means that the statutory rules of intestacy will apply to determine how the property should be distributed.
The process begins with making a formal application to the Probate Court (a division of the Supreme Court in each state and territory) for what is termed Letters of Administration so as to obtain legal authority to deal with the deceased’s estate. Advice should be sought from a solicitor. Information and forms can be viewed on the websites of the Probate Courts’ sites, click here for links.
What is the residuary estate of a person dying without a will (dying intestate)?
The residuary estate or residue is what is left for distribution after all debts of the estate have been paid.
Partial intestacy – a will was left but it did not dispose of all the deceased’s property
A partial intestacy can arise when for some reason, a will does not properly dispose of a part of the estate property according to law. The property affected then becomes part of the residue of the estate, and distributed according to the statutory rules on intestacy.
Often this situation does not arise until after probate has been granted and administration of the estate has commenced. Legal advice should be sought.
25 April 2014, updated 2 June 2021
© BHS Legal
Sturt’s Desert Pea, Swainsona formosa (G.Don) Joy Thomps., family: Fabaceae. Named after explorer Charles Sturt it may be found in the northern, arid lands of the State. Well adapted to its harsh environment, the Sturt Pea sprouts from seed following rain and is capable of producing long roots in search of moisture to assist its survival. First discovered and collected in 1699 by William Dampier (1651-1715), English explorer, in the Dampier Archipelago of the Pilbara region, Western Australia. Indigenous to Australia and it is the floral emblem of South Australia. Photographed at the Australian Arid Lands Botanic Gardens, Port Augusta, SA. Image: © 2013 B Stead.