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What happens if you die without leaving a will?

There's an old saying that the only two things you can be sure of are death and taxes.

Frankly, most of the time you can avoid the taxes -- at least when it comes to inheritances. However, that's only if you have addressed the other issue: dying.

If you die without a will in New Jersey, you're subjecting your estate and your heirs to a lot of unnecessary inheritance taxes and grief.

In addition, even if you've made your wishes known about certain personal items, it won't matter. Without an official document to guide the court, the probate court will take over the administration of your estate and divide your assets and personal items up according to a standard system.

While the chart is fairly simple to follow, there are some things on it that may be important to know if you still think not having a will is important. For example:

1. If you're married, your spouse keeps anything held jointly. It's presumed that anything in your joint home is also your spouse's, unless someone can prove otherwise.

That means that if your spouse refuses to give personal items promised to your adult children, they're simply out of luck.

2. Do you have children and stepchildren? Do you love your stepchildren like they were your own and want them treated equally with your own children?

That's unfortunate, because your stepchildren aren't entitled to anything. Your natural children might be inclined to share with them, but they might not -- which means that your family could end up torn apart over the issue.

3. What if you have no relatives? Not even a single niece or nephew that you know about (or care enough about to leave your money and worldly goods)?

In that case, your belongings get sold by auction so that your estate is entirely converted to cash. The cash then gets taken by the state to do with what it pleases.

Instead of potentially funding a wildlife rescue center or cancer research, your money may go to fund a roadway project or new flooring in some lawmaker's office.

Whether your estate is big or small, a will can be a meaningful document that helps preserve the peace and give you a means to have your voice heard even after you're gone.

Source: Middlesex County, New Jersey, "Surrogate - Your Will," accessed Dec. 08, 2017

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