Intestate Succession in Tennessee

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

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

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, or
  • property you own with someone else in joint tenancy or tenancy by the entirety.

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 Nolo.com or read about Avoiding Probate in Tennessee.

Who Gets What in Tennessee?

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 but no descendants
  • spouse inherits everything
  • spouse and descendants
  • spouse and descendants equally share the intestate property, but the spouse’s share may not be less than 1/3
  • parents but no spouse or descendants
  • parents inherit everything
  • siblings but no spouse, descendants, or parents
  • siblings inherit everything
  •  

    The Spouse’s Share in Tennessee

    In Tennessee, if you are married and you die without a will, what your spouse gets depends on whether or not you have living descendants -- children, grandchildren, or great-grandchildren. If you don’t, then your spouse inherits all of your intestate property. If you do, they and your spouse will share your intestate property equally, except that your spouse’s share cannot be less than 1/3.

    Example: Bill is married to Karen, and they have three grown children. Bill and Karen own a house in joint tenancy, and Karen is also the named beneficiary of Bill’s retirement account. When Bill dies, Karen automatically inherits the house and any remaining retirement funds; those things are not intestate property. Bill also owns $300,000 worth of other property that would have passed under a will, so Karen inherits $100,000 worth -- that is, 1/3 -- of that property. The three children split the remaining $200,000 worth of Bill’s intestate property.

    Children’s Shares in Tennessee

    If you die without a will in Tennessee, 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, Tennessee 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. (Tennessee Code Ann. § 31-2-105.)
    • 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. (Tennessee Code Ann. § 31-2-105.)
    • Posthumous children. Children conceived by you but not born before your death will receive a share, provided they were born within ten months of your death and survived at least 120 hours after birth. (Tennessee Code Ann. § 31-2-108.)
    • 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 participated in a marriage ceremony that later turned out to be void, or (2) your paternity is established before or after your death according to procedures established by Tennessee law. (Tennessee Code Ann. § 31-2-105.)
    • Grandchildren. Your grandchildren will receive a share only if their parent (your child) has died before you do.

    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. If you want to read the laws themselves, you’ll find a link to the Tennessee Statutes at the end of this article.

    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, grandchildren, parents, grandparents, siblings, neices, nephews, or cousins.

    Other Tennessee Intestate Succession Rules

    Here are a few other things to know about Tennessee’s 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 Tennessee’s intestate succession laws in Sections 31-2-101 to 31-2-111 of the Tennessee Code. If you want to read the law, you can search the code for free from the LexisNexis website.

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

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

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