Intestate Succession in Wisconsin

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

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

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
  • real estate held by transfer-on-death deed or beneficiary deed, or
  • property you own with someone else in joint tenancy or as survivorship marital property.

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 Wisconsin.

Who Gets What in Wisconsin?

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 children
  • spouse inherits everything
  • spouse and children who are all descendants from that spouse
  • spouse inherits everything
  • spouse and at least one child who is not a descendant of that spouse
  • spouse inherits 1/2 of your separate property
  • children inherit your share of the community property, plus 1/2 of your separate property
  • parents but no spouse or children
  • parents inherit everything
  • siblings but no spouse, children, or parents
  • siblings inherit everything
  •  

    The Spouse’s Share in Wisconsin

    In Wisconsin, if you are married and you die without a will, what your spouse gets depends in part on how the two of you owned your property -- as separate property or community property. (In Wisconsin, community property is also called marital property.) Generally, community property is property acquired while you were married, and separate property is property you acquired before marriage. There are a couple of big exceptions: Gifts and inheritances given to one spouse are separate property, even if acquired during marriage.

    If you want to learn more about how community property works, read Separate and Community Property During Marriage: Who Owns What?

    Your spouse will inherit all of your community and separate property unless you have children or other descendants from a previous relationship. In that case, your spouse will not inherit your share of the community property. Instead, your spouse inherits only half of your separate property. Your descendants will inherit your share of community property, plus the other half of your separate property.

    Even if you have descendants from a prior relationship, your spouse will have the right to inherit a home from you, if your spouse already lives there or intends to live there. The spouse may have to petition the court to claim this right, and may be required to buy out any interest inherited by your descendants. (Wisconsin Statutes § 854.21.)

    In Wisconsin, the rules for married people also apply to registered domestic partners.

    Children’s Shares in Wisconsin

    If you die without a will in Wisconsin, 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 Wisconsin 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. (Wisconsin Statutes § 854.20.)
    • 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. (Wisconsin Statutes § 854.20.)
    • Posthumous children. Children conceived by you but not born before your death will receive a share as long as they survive at least 120 hours after birth. (Wisconsin Statutes § 854.21.)
    • Children born outside of marriage. If you were not married or in a registered domestic partnership with your children’s mother when she gave birth to them, they may receive a share of your estate if you acknowledged your paternity in writing or your paternity is otherwise established under Wisconsin law. (Wisconsin Statutes § 852.05.)
    • 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 yourself, you’ll find a link to the Wisconsin 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, 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 Wisconsin Intestate Succession Rules

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

    • Survivorship period. To inherit under Wisconsin’s intestate succession statutes, a person must outlive you by 120 hours. So if you and your brother are in a car accident and he dies a few hours after you do, his estate would not receive any of your property. (Wisconsin Statutes § 854.03.)
    • 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. (Wisconsin Statutes §§ 852.03 and 854.21.)
    • Posthumous relatives. Relatives conceived before -- but born after -- you die inherit as if they had been born while you were alive, as long as they survive at least 120 hours after birth. (Wisconsin Statutes § 854.21.)
    • 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. (Wisconsin Statutes § 852.03.)
    • If someone kills you. Someone who “unlawfully and intentionally ” kills you will usually not receive a share of your property. (Wisconsin Statutes § 854.03.)

    Learn More

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

    You can find Wisconsin’s intestate succession laws here: Wisconsin Statutes §§ 852.01-852.13.

    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.

    by: , J.D.

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