By Alexis Levitt 

When a person passes away without a will, a trust, or designated beneficiaries, the assets of the person who has died, or the decedent, are distributed according to what is called intestate succession. 

In this situation, “who gets what” follows strict guidelines established by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. These guidelines can lead to unexpected consequences, even in relatively common scenarios. Let’s look at a few examples. 
If a person was married without children, the surviving spouse does not necessarily receive all estate assets when the decedent still has living parents. In such a situation, the spouse would receive the first $200,000 plus three quarters of the remaining assets. The remainder would go to the decedent’s parents. 
If a person was married with children, the surviving spouse would receive all assets as long as the children were from that particular marriage. However, if the decedent’s children are from a different marriage, both the surviving spouse and the decedent’s children would receive assets. 
What about a decedent who was not married? If he or she has surviving children, each child would receive an equal share of the assets. If there are no living descendants, assets would go to the decedent’s parents. If there are no surviving parents, the assets would go to the decedent’s siblings. 
Intestate succession can become considerably more complicated in other scenarios, with commensurately unexpected, and perhaps undesired, results. 
The bottom line is that without proper planning, you have no control over what happens to your assets after you pass away. Nor will you have control over who serves as your personal representative to settle the estate. Given the importance of this role, it is possible that some members of your family will be unhappy with the Commonwealth’s choice of personal representative. This can lead to family infighting and expensive litigation. 

If you are not pleased with the outcomes in the examples above, it is imperative that you undertake proper planning. 

About the Author: Alexis Levitt practices elder law, special needs planning, estate planning, and veteran’s benefits. She sits on the board of the Massachusetts chapter of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and represents it on the Massachusetts Coalition for Serious Illness Care. Alexis also sat on the board of the Norwell Council on Aging. Her office is in Norwell. You can reach her at 781-740-7269 or visit her website and blog for more information at