Intestate Succession in Rhode Island

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

Updated by , Attorney (George Mason University Law School)

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

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 Nolo.com or read about Avoiding Probate in Rhode Island.

Who Gets What in Rhode Island?

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 parents but no descendants real estate: spouse inherits up to $150,000 worth of your intestate real estate, plus the right to use the rest of it for life

personal property: spouse inherits $50,000 worth of intestate personal property, plus 1/2 of the balance

parents inherit everything else
spouse and descendants Spouse has the right to use your intestate real estate for life and inherits 1/2 of your intestate personal property outright

descendants inherit everything else
parents but no spouse or descendants parents inherit everything
siblings but no spouse, descendants, or parents siblings inherit everything

(R.I. Gen. Laws §§ 33-1-1; 33-1-5; 33-1-6; 33-1-10 (2024).)

The Spouse's Share in Rhode Island

In Rhode Island, 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 die without children or other descendants. Your spouse can petition the probate court to inherit up to $150,000 of your intestate real estate outright; otherwise, he or she is entitled to only a life estate -- that is, the right to use the real estate for life but not to sell it or give it away. Your spouse also inherits $50,000 worth of your personal property, plus 1/2 of the balance. (R.I. Gen. Laws §§ 33-1-5; 33-1-6; 33-1-10 (2024).)

If you die with children or other descendants. Your spouse has the right to use your intestate real estate for life and inherits 1/2 of your intestate personal property outright. (R.I. Gen. Laws §§ 33-1-5; 33-1-10 (2024).)

Example: Gerry is married to Joe, and the couple has two children. Gerry owns a house in joint tenancy with Joe, and Joe is also the named beneficiary of Gerry's retirement account. When Gerry dies, Joe automatically inherits the house and any remaining retirement funds; those things are not intestate property. Gerry also has $200,000 worth of additional property that would have passed under a will, if she had made one. Joe inherits $100,000 worth of that property. The two children inherit $50,000 each.

Children's Shares in Rhode Island

If you die without a will in Rhode Island, 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 Rhode Island 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. (R.I. Gen. Laws § 15-7-16 (2024).)
  • Foster children and stepchildren. Foster children and stepchildren you never legally adopted will not automatically receive a share. However, if you die without other family members, your stepchildren may have a right to inherit from you. (R.I. Gen. Laws § 33-1-3 (2024).)
  • Children placed for adoption. In Rhode Island, children you placed for adoption and who were legally adopted by another family are entitled to an intestate share of your estate. (R.I. Gen. Laws § 15-7-17 (2024).)
  • Posthumous children. Children conceived by you but not born before your death will receive a share. (R.I. Gen. Laws § 33-1-4 (2024).)
  • 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 you married their mother after their birth, you acknowledged your paternity, or if your paternity was otherwise established under Rhode Island law. (R.I. Gen. Laws § 33-1-8 (2024).)
  • Grandchildren. A grandchild will receive a share only if that grandchild's parent (your son or daughter) is not alive to receive his or her share. (R.I. Gen. Laws § 33-1-7 (2024).)

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. (R.I. Gen. Laws § 33-21-1 (2024).)

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, or the children, parents, or siblings of a spouse who dies before you do.

Other Rhode Island Intestate Succession Rules

Here are a few other things to know about Rhode Island's intestacy laws.

  • Survivorship period. To inherit under Rhode Island'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. (R.I. Gen. Laws § 33-1-13 (2024).)
  • 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. (Doar v. Doar, 63 R.I. 18 (1939).)
  • 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.
  • Slayer rule. Someone who "willfully and unlawfully" kills you or procures your death will not receive a share of your estate. (R.I. Gen. Laws §§ 33-1.1; 33-1.2 (2024).)
  • Advancements. If you gave property to a relative during your lifetime, the value of this gift is subtracted from your relative's share only if you stated in writing at the time of making the gift that it was an advancement or your relative admits this in writing. (R.I. Gen. Laws § 33-1-11 (2024).)

Learn More

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

You can find Rhode Island's intestate succession laws here: Rhode Island General Laws § § 33-1-1 to 33-1-11.

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

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