When a person dies, his estate, comprised of all property acquired during his lifetime, will be distributed to his heirs and beneficiaries. In Maryland, property passes in accordance with the state's inheritance laws. These laws provide guidance for estates passing by will or through intestate succession, as well as nonprobate assets. Beneficiaries are determined by how the deceased's estate is set up.
The best way to ensure that your property passes in accordance with your wishes is to draft and sign a will. Maryland law requires that a testator, the person making the will, be mentally competent and a minimum of 18 years old. The will must be in writing and signed by the testator in the presence of two witnesses. You are permitted to leave your property to anyone, including friends, family and charitable organizations. In your will you will also select a personal representative or executor. Your representative is responsible for filing your will with Maryland's Register of Wills and distributing estate assets to beneficiaries, once the will is approved by the register. The representative must also make sure that all debts, estate fees and taxes are paid before any distributions are completed.
Changing a Will
Wills do not expire, but should be updated after major life changes, including marriage, divorce or the birth of a child; otherwise your estate may not pass according to your wishes. This is because when a marriage occurs after the will signing and that spouse is not named in the will, she has limited rights upon your death. Additionally, subsequent divorce revokes any provisions leaving property to your former spouse, so if you still planned to leave her something, she will not be entitled to inherit. Most importantly, if you have any children after signing your will, the entire document is considered revoked and your estate will pass as though you died without a will. An original will cannot be altered, but amendments, additions and deletions can be addressed by signing a codicil. It must be signed using the same formalities as the will.
Maryland law does not permit a testator from disinheriting his spouse, which means he cannot omit her from his will. This means that if a surviving spouse is not named as a beneficiary in the deceased's will, she has a right of election. She will inherit up to one-half of the estate if there are no surviving children, or one-third of the estate if the deceased is survived by at least one child. This prevents a spouse from losing her rightful inheritance.
When a person dies without a will in Maryland, he is considered intestate. Maryland law sets forth the order in which your surviving relatives will inherit your estate. If you leave a spouse and minor children, your spouse receives one-half of your estate and your minor children inherit the remaining half in equal shares. For example, three children each inherit one-third of half of the estate. If the children are all over 18, your spouse inherits $15,000 plus one-half of the estate; your children inherit the remaining estate. If there is no spouse, children inherit the entire estate. When there is no spouse and no children, parents are next to inherit, then siblings, followed by more distant relatives. State law requires that an estate pass to the local board of education if there are no surviving blood relatives.
Not all property passes via will or through intestate succession. Some assets pass to beneficiaries automatically upon your death. These assets include life insurance proceeds, payable-on-death bank accounts, any assets in trust, and jointly owned property. Jointly owned property is anything you owned with one or more people. It is owned with a right of survivorship, which means that when one owner dies, surviving owners inherit equal shares of the deceased's percentage of ownership. For example, if three siblings owned a house, two surviving siblings would inherit one half of the deceased's original one-third share.
Bernadette A. Safrath is an attorney who has been writing professionally since 2008. Safrath was published in Touro Law Center's law review and now writes legal articles for various websites. Safrath has a Bachelor of Arts in music from Long Island University at C.W. Post, as well as a Juris Doctor from Touro College.