How to Transfer Property After Death Without Will

When a person dies, laws dictate how their estate is settled. This means that their bank accounts are closed after paying taxes and bills owed, and belongings are divided among heirs or sold to pay debts. Settling an estate must follow the state laws where the individual lived or where the person owned property.

Every person has an estate, regardless of how little they appear to own. There are almost always accounts to close and debts to pay. Even if there are no obvious assets held by the deceased, researching property records is part of the probate process. There may be unclaimed accounts, forgotten insurance policies, hidden investments, or unknown properties held by that person.

Several states, including Tennessee, Alabama, and Ohio, have probate thresholds of $25,000 or $30,000 in assets, not including real property. Below that amount, the estate may avoid probate, but proof may be required. Texas has a threshold of $50,000, but California allows any estate valued at less than $184,500 to avoid probate. Check the laws in the state where the deceased resided or owned property.

Most states have adopted the Uniform Probate Code, which simplifies the process. Under this model, there are three potential probate forms (when necessary). They each depend on the complexity of the estate and any objections or contests to the will. These forms of probate are:

  • Informal
  • Unsupervised formal
  • Supervised formal

Before selling any estate-owned property, there must be legally soundproof evidence of a clear ownership title.

The process is streamlined if the deceased has left a will that names an executor and describes how to divide assets among heirs. Transferring property after death without a will is complicated and more time-consuming. The legal term for dying without a will is “intestate.

transferring property after death

What Happens to a House When the Owner Dies Without a Will?

Houses are often co-owned by spouses, siblings, or groups of investors. When a property has more than one named owner, and one dies, transferring ownership to the surviving partner is not complicated, even without a will. However, suppose there is only one name on the deed, and they die without a will. In that case, the probate court with jurisdiction oversees how the property is handled.

Probate procedures and timelines differ from one state to another. Still, the deceased’s spouse, children, or next of kin generally have a specific period to petition the state probate court after a homeowner’s death. If no one steps forward, the probate court appoints an executor to settle the estate.

With the probate court’s approval, the executor ensures the process follows laws regarding payment of creditors and taxes with the accounts held by the deceased. Executors have valuables appraised and run legal ads in newspapers to alert creditors who seek compensation from the estate of the deadline to make a claim. Once heirs are identified and debts settled, the remaining money or belongings are distributed to them.

Without a will, a home owned by the deceased will likely be sold and the money added to the general estate.

Can a House Stay in a Deceased Person's Name?

When a house is co-owned and one partner dies, the surviving partner is compelled by probate law to remove the deceased's name from the deed. It's the same for family members who may inherit a home from their parents. State laws concerning probate usually require updating the property deed before the estate can be closed and probate completed.

Different Types of Property Transfers

There are specific legal processes for transferring ownership of property. The local registry of deeds will have step-by-step instructions on changing the named owners.

Transferring property if you have joint ownership

Joint ownership may take different forms: tenancy in common, joint tenancy, and tenancy by the entirety. 

Joint tenancy has a survivorship component. When one person in a joint tenancy dies, their share of the property passes to the surviving partner. 

Tenancy in common allows unequal ownership, with responsibility for costs proportional to the ownership stake. When one person in a tenancy in common situation dies, their share of the property passes to their heirs. 

Tenancy by the entirety, often applies to married couples because it has a survivorship clause. Each member has full rights over the property, and this is usually a way to avoid having to probate the property to transfer ownership.

Transferring property if you have sole ownership

Transferring ownership of property under sole ownership is simple unless the owner has died intestate (without a will). It is the most flexible form of ownership because only one person is responsible for making decisions.

Transferring property if you have no heirs

Property owners with no heirs should make a will that designates persons or institutions to benefit from their estates. Without such a directive, the state where the person lived or owned property is likely to keep any proceeds from an estate. This process is called escheatment. States may claim money from untouched bank accounts, sales of abandoned property, and estates that are settled without heirs. 

Make a Will to Take Control of Your Property

Along with assigning beneficiaries to all financial accounts, a legal will is one of the best ways to help your family and heirs avoid a lengthy legal process to settle your estate. A will is crucial when there is property involved, mainly if it is solely owned or owned by non-spouse partners. Most states require that a person is of "sound mind" when creating and signing a will and that at least two adult witnesses also sign the document. Getting a will notarized adds a layer of authenticity as well.


The legal process of probate is in place specifically to ensure the correct legal procedures are followed to pay debts and settle accounts when a person dies. The absence of a will upon death complicates and lengthens the process. Putting safeguards in place, such as adding a survivorship clause to a joint property ownership situation and naming beneficiaries on investment and savings accounts, helps to avoid a long, complex probate period. Putting properties and assets in trusts with named heirs is another way to pass assets along smoothly. Naming an able and trustworthy executor with your family’s best interests at heart is an important decision that similarly expedites the estate settlement process.