What happens to property named in a will if the beneficiary dies before the estate has been distributed?

A person’s Last Will & Testament is one of the most important legal documents they’ll ever make. They’re simpler than you might imagine, but as with all things there are some unforeseen circumstances that can lead to complications.

If someone is named a beneficiary in a will but passes away themselves before the inheritance is disbursed, there are several things that can happen–depending on the precise circumstances.

If they’re the sole beneficiary:

In most states, if the sole beneficiary of a will dies before the estate has been resolved, their inheritance will instead pass on to their beneficiaries. If they have a will of their own, this will be the person or people named in that will.

If they do not, their heir will be determined by the standard approach: a person’s legal spouse is the default heir; if they are unmarried, then it is their children; if they have none, it is their siblings; if there are none, then their parents; if their parents are not living, there’s a complex process of hunting down another family member that kicks in.

This is a thorny issue, though, and will generally be taken on a case-by-case basis. Other relatives of the deceased will usually be able to take the heirs of the original beneficiary to court and challenge the inheritance if they feel the need to do so.

If they’re joint beneficiaries with someone else:

Usually the portion of the estate that would have gone to them will instead be split equally between any other beneficiaries of the original will.

There are some states, however, in which this will not be the case and the portion of the deceased’s estate set to be inherited will instead enter their estate as in the previous case. Should this occur, the other beneficiaries of the will could usually make a legal challenge if they felt it inappropriate for those people to inherit.

Can this be changed?

Many wills have clauses in them designed to deal with problems of this nature. Ask your lawyer to help you draft one, if you’re worried about this happening; you can specify someone to be an alternate beneficiary of your estate in the event of a beneficiary’s death.

This is a particularly good idea if you think it likely that other relatives or beneficiaries of your will would feel it necessary to make a legal challenge if some portion of your estate were to pass into the hands of a beneficiary’s heirs. Court challenges of wills are a nasty, divisive business and something that families should attempt to avoid at all costs: by making your wishes clear, you can help save them from the strain and bitterness.

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