Technically, when a decedent dies without a will, he doesn’t leave beneficiaries. He leaves heirs -- individuals who are so closely related to him that they inherit his property by state law. However, those heirs become beneficiaries of his estate when the probate process transfers ownership of his assets to them. Tennessee requires probate of estates with or without a will. The greatest difference is that the decedent does not get to choose his beneficiaries if he doesn’t leave a will, specifying to whom he wants his property to pass. Tennessee's intestacy laws decide this for him.
In Tennessee, spouses are first in line to inherit when a decedent dies without a will. How much of the estate a spouse receives depends on whether the decedent also left any children or grandchildren, which the law calls “issue.” If the decedent left no issue, his spouse receives the entirety of his estate under Tennessee’s laws of intestate succession. If he did leave issue, his spouse's portion would equal at least one-third of the estate.
Read More: Legal Rights of a Surviving Spouse
Children and Grandchildren
Tennessee’s inheritance laws become complex when factoring in the decedent’s children and grandchildren. If he had children, they equally share two-thirds of their parent's estate, after the bequest of one-third to his spouse. For example, if his estate is worth $120,000, his spouse would receive property valued at $40,000 and his children would divide property valued at $80,000. If he left five children, they would each receive $16,000. If he left five children and five grandchildren, the court would divide the two-thirds share of his estate six ways – one share for each of his children, and one share to be divided equally among his grandchildren. His five children would each receive about $13,333, and his grandchildren would divide about $13,333 among them, receiving about $2,667 each. Under Tennessee law, children include adopted children and infants conceived prior to the decedent’s death but born after. Children inherit the entire estate when the decedent leaves no surviving spouse.
Tennessee law includes another complex factor that might result in the decedent's spouse receiving more than one-third of his estate. She can claim a "child's share" instead, if this amounts to more than one-third. The child's share is based on the value of the entire estate, as though she did not exist. For example, if the decedent left only one child, and his estate is valued at $100,000, that child would inherit $100,000. His spouse can elect to equally share that $100,000 with the child, which would result in an inheritance of $50,000, greater than her one-third share of $33,333.
Generally, a decedent’s parents or siblings would become beneficiaries of his intestate estate only if he left no spouse, children or grandchildren. In this case, Tennessee’s intestate succession laws bequeath his entire estate 50/50 between his parents if they are both living. Otherwise, his sole surviving parent receives his entire estate. If both his parents predecease him, his siblings would inherit his estate in equal shares. If any of his siblings predeceased him, their issue would receive their parents’ share, divided equally among them. Half brothers and sisters are treated the same as full siblings under Tennessee law.
Tennessee courts usually probate an estate according to intestacy laws if the decedent did leave a will, but his loved ones can’t locate the original. In this case, to prevent intestate succession, one of the will's beneficiaries would have to petition the court to accept a copy of the will for probate instead. The court will sometimes allow this if the beneficiary can provide evidence that the original will was lost and that the decedent didn’t revoke it by tearing up or destroying it. Heirs only receive their bequests after payment of all probate costs and the decedent’s taxes and debts.
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.