Q. My grandmother died without a will. She had two children and seven grandchildren. One of her children — my mother — is deceased. How would her assets be split?
— Wondering

A. As many as 55 percent of Americans die without a will, according to some studies.

That’s no surprise because estate planning involves the somewhat unpleasant task of thinking about your own mortality.

When a person dies without a will, known as dying “intestate,” the deceased’s heirs may have cause for concern because state law now controls how assets pass, said Andrew Novick, a certified financial planner and estate planning attorney with The Investment Connection and Brookner Law Offices in Bridgewater.

He said a state’s intestate succession statute — in New Jersey, NJSA 3B:5 — is generally designed to distribute wealth in a manner that is consistent with the wishes of an average person.

“The statute also include provisions for `representation,’ meaning a predeceased heir’s share is passed to that heir’s issue in equal shares,” Novick said. “This pattern of receiving property from a decedent’s estate is also called `per stirpes,’ which is Latin for `through the branches.'”

It’s referring to the branches of the ancestral blood line, Novick said.

As it applies for your situation, the state statute dictates that your grandmother’s assets would have passed equally to her two daughters, assuming your grandmother was not married at the time of her death, Novick said. Half would go to the Daughter No. 1 and half to Daughter No. 2.

“However, since Daughter No. 1 predeceased the grandmother, her share will pass to her children by representation,” Novick said.

You didn’t say how many of the seven grandchildren are in Daughter No. 1’s line, we can’t give you a specific answer.

But Novick offered this example: If Daughter No. 1 had four children and Daughter No. 2 had three children, then Daughter No. 1’s children would each get 12.5 percent (50% divided by 4 = 12.5%) and Daughter No. 2 gets 50 percent. Daughter No. 2’s three children get nothing.

“Grandmother may have wanted all of her granddaughters to get a portion of her estate or maybe she wanted her surviving daughter to get 100 percent of her estate, but the intestate succession rules applied because she didn’t have a will,” Novick said.

This is also a good reminder, if you don’t have a will, it’s time to start your estate planning now.

Email your questions to Ask@NJMoneyHelp

Karin Price Mueller writes the Bamboozled column for The Star-Ledger and she’s the founder of NJMoneyHelp.com. Click here to sign up for the NJMoneyHelp.com weekly e-newsletter. Like NJMoneyHelp.com on Facebook and follow it on Twitter.

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