Intestate Succession in Kentucky

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

Updated by , Attorney · George Mason University Law School

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 pass through probate are affected by intestate succession laws. Many valuable assets don't go through probate, and therefore aren't affected by intestate succession laws. Here are some examples:

  • property you've transferred to a living trust
  • life insurance proceeds with a named beneficiary
  • funds in an IRA, 401(k), or other retirement account with a named beneficiary
  • securities held in a transfer-on-death account
  • real estate for which you have a transfer on death deed
  • vehicles for which you have a transfer on death registration
  • 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. However, if you don't have a will and none of the named beneficiaries are alive to take the property, then the property could end up being transferred according to intestate succession.

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 personal property and 1/2 of your real property to sell or give away

descendants inherit 1/2 of your personal property and the remainder of your real property
spouse and parents, but no descendants spouse inherits 1/2 of your personal property and 1/2 of your real property to sell or give away

parents inherit 1/2 of your personal property and the remainder of your real property
spouse and siblings, but no descendants or parents spouse inherits 1/2 of your personal property and 1/2 of your real property to sell or give away

siblings inherit 1/2 of your personal property and the remainder of your real property
parents but no spouse or descendants parents inherit everything
siblings but no spouse, descendants, or parents siblings inherit everything

(Ky. Rev. Stat. §§ 391.010; 391.030; 392.020 (2023).)

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. (Ky. Rev. Stat. § 392.020 (2023).)

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. (Ky. Rev. Stat. § 199.520 2023).)
  • 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. (Ky. Rev. Stat. § 199.520 (2023).)
  • 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. (Ky. Rev. Stat. § 391.070 (2023).)
  • 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 before or after your death. (Ky. Rev. Stat. §§ 391.100; 391.105 (2023).)
  • Grandchildren. A grandchild will receive a share only if your son or daughter (that grandchild's parent) is not alive to receive his or her share. (Ky. Rev. Stat. § 391.040 (2023).)

If you want to read the law, 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. (Ky. Rev. Stat. § 393.020 (2023).)

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, great grandparents, aunts or uncles, great uncles or aunts, nieces or nephews, cousins of any degree, brothers or sisters of grandparents, 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 only half as much as "whole" relatives. (Ky. Rev. Stat. § 391.050 (2023).)
  • Survivorship period. To inherit under Kentucky's intestate succession statutes, a person must outlive you by five days. (This is a survivorship period requirement.) 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. (Ky. Rev. Stat. § 397.1002 (2023).)
  • 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. (Ky. Rev. Stat. § 391.060 (2023).)
  • Advancements. If a parent or grandparent gave money or property to their child or grandchild, this amount is deducted from his or her share and this person will get nothing more from the estate until the other relatives' shares are equal to this person's share. (Ky. Rev. Stat. § 391.140 (2023).)
  • Set aside funds. Personal property or money in a bank up to $30,000 is set aside for the surviving spouse, or if there is no surviving spouse, to the surviving children. The surviving spouse can ask the court for an order to withdraw up to $2,500 from a bank or other financial institution that had an account for you. The surviving spouse can select which property to include in the $30,000 exemption.(Ky. Rev. Stat. § 391.030 (2023).)
  • Real estate from your parents. If your parents gave you real property and you die before them without children or grandchildren, your parents will inherit that property from you. (Ky. Rev. Stat. § 391.020 (2023).)
  • Right to annuity funds. If you have an annuity that owes you payments for the rest of the year, your relatives have the right to recover these unpaid amounts. (Ky. Rev. Stat. § 391.130 (2023).)
  • Use of name and likeness of public figures. If you are a public figure, your name and image cannot be used for profit for 50 years after you die without your executor's permission. (Ky. Rev. Stat. § 391.170 (2023).)

Learn More

To learn more about intestate succession, read How an Estate Is Settled If There's No Will.

You can find Kentucky's dower and curtesy law in Chapter 392 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

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