Abandoning an inheritance you receive through intestate succession might have only a minimal effect on the estate, depending on your degree of kinship to the decedent. If you’re the decedent’s spouse, it might result in a windfall to other heirs. However, if you're his niece, it's like to cause only a small ripple in the proceedings.
Usual Order of Succession
Intestate succession occurs when an individual dies without a will. Therefore, he has not expressed his wishes, through a will, regarding how he wants to distribute his assets at his death. In such cases, state law takes over and makes the decision for him. Courts attempt to mimic what logic implies the decedent would have wanted. This means his closest kin receive his assets first. The court doesn't judge the quality of his relationship with these individuals. He may not have had contact with them in years, but they would still inherit under the law. Surviving spouses are usually the first to inherit according to laws of intestate succession, unless a legal separation or divorce decree exists terminating rights of inheritance. If the decedent left any children, they would also probably have first rights to his property. Typically, only if all these individuals predeceased the decedent, or if he wasn't married and had no children, would the court consider more distant relatives for inheritance. The decedent’s parents might inherit, or if they are no longer living, then his siblings, nieces, nephews and grandparents might receive his property and generally in that order. In most states, if any of these individuals abandon their right to inherit, their share passes to the next relative in line according to that state's intestate succession laws.
Percentages of Estate
If you are the decedent’s surviving spouse, it doesn’t necessarily mean you'll receive the entirety of his estate. If he left children, you would probably inherit one-third to one-half of his property, with the balance of his assets going to his children. The balance is usually distributed under a legal concept called “per stirpes.” This means they inherit as a group and share the percentage equally. For example, if the decedent's estate is worth $500,000, you might receive property and assets equaling $250,000, and his children would equally divide assets and property worth $250,000. If he had two children, each of them would receive $125,000 in property and cash assets.
Abandonment of Intestate Share
If you are the surviving spouse, and if you renounce your intestate inheritance, the decedent’s remaining heirs can usually inherit his entire estate. For example, if you were to renounce your share of $250,000, it would revert to your spouse’s children. They would now divide $500,000 of property and assets between them in equal measure, instead of only $250,000. If you are the decedent’s son or daughter, and if you renounce your right to intestate succession, your portion would pass to your own children in most states. It would not usually revert to your siblings. If you have one sibling, and if you are each in line to receive half of $250,000, the $125,000 allocated to you would pass to your children per stirpes.
If you are, for example, the decedent’s only sibling and he left no surviving spouse, children or grandchildren and his parents have predeceased him, it is conceivable that you could inherit his entire estate. Otherwise, you would probably not inherit at all -- the decedent's spouse, children, grandchildren and parents would normally inherit first. Property would only pass to you if they were not alive to receive it. If you abandon the estate, it normally passes to your children. If you have no children, and if the decedent had no other living relatives, his estate escheats in most jurisdictions, i.e. reverts to the state.
Beverly Bird is a practicing paralegal who has been writing professionally on legal subjects for over 30 years. She specializes in family law and estate law and has mediated family custody issues.