Lynn Brenner Lynn Brenner

Brenner answers questions about all aspects of family finance.

My husband can't convince his brother that he needs a will. My brother-in-law is unmarried, and he says he has informed his bank that in case of his death, my husband should have access to his bank account and IRAs. (He also owns real estate.) He doesn't like his other relatives, but he doesn't believe they'd get his assets if my husband predeceases him.


He's wrong. If he has no will, at least some of his assets will be distributed according to state law. And as things stand, his heirs may include relatives he dislikes even if your husband survives him.

True, IRAs and "in trust for" bank accounts aren't governed by wills. But your husband will inherit them only if he is named in beneficiary designation documents. If no beneficiary is listed, these accounts are subject to the state's intestacy law.

That law says when a married person dies without a will, his or her surviving spouse gets the first $50,000 of the estate, plus half of what remains. The other half is divided among the surviving children. (If the deceased leaves $250,000, for example, the surviving spouse inherits $150,000 and the children get $100,000.) If there's no surviving spouse, the assets are divided among the children.

Your brother-in-law is unmarried. Assuming he has no children and his parents have predeceased him, the law divides his assets among his brothers and sisters. Let's say he has three siblings -- your husband and two sisters, whom we'll call Joe, Ann and Marie for the sake of clarity. If Joe has died, the law gives his share to his children. If Joe has no children, his share is divided between Ann and Marie.

The bottom line When you die without a will, state law determines who gets your assets.

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TO ASK THE EXPERT: Send questions to Ask the Expert / Act 2, Newsday Newsroom, 235 Pinelawn Rd., Melville, NY 11747-4226, or email Include your name, address and phone number. Questions can be answered only in this column. Advice is offered as general guidance. Check with your own advisers for your specific needs.