Intestate Succession in Kentucky

What happens if you die without a will? Learn about intestacy in Kentucky.

If you die without a will in Kentucky, your assets will go to your closest relatives under state “intestate succession” laws. Here are some details about how intestate succession works in Kentucky.

Which Assets Pass by Intestate Succession

Only assets that would have passed through your will are affected by intestate succession laws. Usually, that includes only assets that you own alone, in your own name.

Many valuable assets don’t go through your will, and aren’t affected by intestate succession laws. Here are some examples:

  • property you’ve transferred to a living trust
  • life insurance proceeds
  • funds in an IRA, 401(k), or other retirement account
  • securities held in a transfer-on-death account
  • payable-on-death bank accounts
  • property you own with someone else in joint tenancy or tenancy by the entirety, or
  • property that passes to a surviving spouse by “dower and curtesy,” discussed below.

These assets will pass to the surviving co-owner or to the beneficiary you named, whether or not you have a will.

To learn more about these types of assets, go to the How to Avoid Probate section of or read about Avoiding Probate in Kentucky.

Who Gets What in Kentucky?

Under intestate succession, who gets what depends on whether or not you have living children, parents, or other close relatives when you die. Here’s a quick overview:

If you die with: here’s what happens:
  • children but no spouse
  • children inherit everything
  • spouse and descendants
  • spouse inherits 1/2 of your intestate property
  • descendants inherit 1/2 of your intestate property
  • spouse and parents, but no descendants
  • spouse inherits 1/2 of your intestate property
  • parents inherit 1/2 of your intestate property
  • spouse and siblings, but no descendants or parents
  • spouse inherits 1/2 of your intestate property
  • siblings inherit 1/2 of your intestate property
  • parents but no spouse or descendants
  • parents inherit everything
  • siblings but no spouse, descendants, or parents
  • siblings inherit everything

    The Spouse’s Share in Kentucky

    In Kentucky, if you die without a will, your spouse will inherit property from you under a law called “dower and curtesy.” Usually, this means that your spouse inherits 1/2 of your intestate property. The rest of your property passes to your descendants, parents, or siblings. If you don’t have descendants, parents, or siblings, then your spouse inherits everything.

    The rules of dower and curtesy, when combined with intestate succession laws, can quickly become complicated. Following is a simple example of how they might work.

    Example: Paul and Joan were married for seven years, and Paul has two children from a previous marriage. Paul and Joan own a house in joint tenancy. Paul also owns a substantial amount of personal property, including some very valuable antiques. When Paul dies without a will, the house passes automatically to Joan, because it is not intestate property. In addition, Joan inherits 1/2 of Paul’s personal property under the rules of dower and curtesy. The remaining 1/2 of Paul’s personal property passes to his kids.

    If you have any concerns about this area of the law, see an experienced attorney for help.

    Children’s Shares in Kentucky

    If you die without a will in Kentucky, your children will receive an “intestate share” of your property. The size of each child’s share depends on how many children you have and whether or not you are married. (See the table above.)

    For children to inherit from you under the laws of intestacy, the state of Kentucky must consider them your children, legally. For many families, this is not a confusing issue. But it’s not always clear. Here are some things to keep in mind.

    • Adopted children. Children you legally adopted will receive an intestate share, just as your biological children do.
    • Foster children and stepchildren. Foster children and stepchildren you never legally adopted will not automatically receive a share.
    • Children placed for adoption. Children you placed for adoption and who were legally adopted by another family will not receive a share. However, if your biological children were adopted by your spouse, that won’t affect their intestate inheritance.
    • Posthumous children. Children conceived by you but not born before your death will receive a share if they are born within ten months of your death.
    • Children born outside of marriage. If you were not married to your children’s mother when she gave birth to them, they will receive a share of your estate if (1) you were not married because your marriage was found to be illegal or void, or (2) your paternity has been established under Kentucky law.
    • Grandchildren. Your grandchildren will receive a share only if their parent (your child) has died before you do.

    If you want to read the law, Kentucky Statutes §§ 391.070, 391.100, and 391.105 cover parent-child relationships. You can search the Kentucky Statutes by visiting the website of the Kentucky Legislature.

    This can be a tricky area of the law, so if you have questions about your relationship to your parent or child, get help from an experienced attorney.

    Will the State Get Your Property?

    If you die without a will and don’t have any family, your property will “escheat” into the state’s coffers. However, this very rarely happens because the laws are designed to get your property to anyone who was even remotely related to you. For example, your property won’t go to the state if you leave a spouse, children, siblings, parents, grandparents, aunts or uncles, great uncles or aunts, nieces or nephews, cousins of any degree, or the children, parents, or siblings of a spouse who dies before you do.

    Other Kentucky Intestate Succession Rules

    Here are a few other things to know about Kentucky intestacy laws.

    • Half-relatives. “Half” relatives inherit as if they were “whole.” That is, your sister with whom you share a father, but not a mother, has the same right to your property as she would if you had both parents in common.
    • Posthumous relatives. Relatives conceived before -- but born after -- you die inherit as if they had been born while you were alive.
    • Immigration status. Relatives entitled to an intestate share of your property will inherit whether or not they are citizens or legally in the United States.

    Learn More

    To learn more about intestate succession, read How an Estate Is Settled When There is No Will.

    You can find Kentucky’s dower and curtesy law in Section 392.020 of the Kentucky Statutes. Intestate succession laws are covered in Sections 391.010 to 391.170. You can search the Kentucky Statutes by visiting the website of the Kentucky Legislature.

    For more about estate planning, go to the Wills, Trusts & Probate section of

    Need a lawyer? Search for an experienced estate planning attorney with Nolo’s Lawyer Directory.

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