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Intestacy is the condition of the estate of a person who dies without having made a valid will or other binding declaration. Intestacy law, also referred to as the law of descent and distribution, refers to the body of common law that determines who is entitled to the property from the estate under the rules of inheritance.
The concept of intestacy has a limited application in those jurisdictions that follow civil law or Roman law; in these places, the doctrine of legitime gives a deceased person's relatives title to all or a large part of the estate's propery by operation of law. This share could only be decreased on account of some very specific misconduct by the heir.
After the Statute of Wills, 32 Henry VIII c. 1, Englishmen (and unmarried or widowed women) could dispose of their lands and property by a will. Their personal property could formerly be disposed of by a "testament," hence the hallowed legal merism "Last Will and Testament."
Common law sharply distinguised between real property and chattels. Real property for which no disposition had been made by will passed by the law of kinship and descent; chattel property for which no disposition had been made by testament was escheat to the Crown, or given to the Church for charitable purposes. This law became obsolete as England moved from being a feudal to a mercantile society, and chattels more valuable than land were being accumulated by townspeople.
In most contemporary common-law jurisdictions, the law of intestacy is patterned after the common law of descent. Property goes first to a spouse, then to children and their descendants; if there are no descendants, the rule sends you back up the family tree to the parents, the siblings, the siblings' descendants, the grandparents, the parents' siblings, and the parents' siblings' descendants, and sometimes further to the more remote degrees of kinship. The operation of these laws varies from one jurisdiction to another. Attempts in the United States to make the law with respect to intestate succession uniform from state to state have met with limited success.
If a person dies intestate with no identifiable heirs, the person's estate generally escheats to the government.
The distribution of the property of an intestate decedent is the responsibility of the administrator (or personal representative) of the estate: typically the administrator is chosen by the court having jurisdiction over the decedent's property, and is frequently (but not always) a person nominated by a majority of the decedent's heirs.
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