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Ask the Expert: Inheriting if the family dies

In our wills, my husband and I leave everything to each other. If we die together, everything's divided between our sons. Our wills don't name anyone else. But what if we all die in a car or plane crash? Which members of our extended family would inherit? Can we exclude a particular person?


You can disinherit anyone except your spouse. But even if you don't want to exclude anyone, your wills should name beneficiaries to inherit in the event your immediate family dies in a common accident, says Eric Kramer, a Uniondale estate lawyer.

Next week, we'll address how to disinherit someone. First, let's discuss the intestacy law, which determines who inherits if you die without a will or if the heirs you named are all deceased.

The law applies only to assets that can be left under a will, which don't include retirement or in-trust-for accounts, life insurance or jointly owned property. (Even if you have a will, those assets go to their named beneficiaries or co-owners. Intestacy rules would cover them only if all those people are dead.) Assuming you have no surviving spouse or children, the law gives everything to your parents. If they're dead, everything goes to your siblings; and if your siblings are dead, to their children. If you were an only child, everything goes to your aunts and uncles; and next, to their children.

This law can result in an outcome you'd never have chosen, says Kramer. He recalls a childless young couple who died in a plane crash. In such cases, the legal question is who died owning the estate. "The medical examiner determined the wife had died second. Under the intestacy law, it all went to her family. His family got nothing."

The bottom line Your will should address every contingency.

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TO ASK THE EXPERT Send questions to Ask the Expert/Act 2, Newsday Newsroom, 235 Pinelawn Rd., Melville, NY 11747, 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.

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