Reader Mail: No Will, Assets Go Where!?

Jimmy sent me an interesting question the other day, something that all us married folk should be thinking about:

For a married couple where neither has a will, how do the assets get distributed? Do they go straight to the other person?

As I am not a lawyer, I don’t have precise answers. However, this is what I understand:

Assets under Joint Ownership

  • These assets will automatically be passed onto the partner tax free. If both partners die at the same time WITHOUT a will, the courts will decide where it goes.


  • If you want the RRSP to go to your partner, you must name him/her as the beneficiary of the account. Upon passing, the beneficiary will obtain ownership of the RRSP account tax free. If no beneficiary is named, again, the courts will decide where the assets go.

Everything Else

  • Unless the asset is included in the will, the courts will decide how to “fairly” distribute the assets.

Moral of the story? If you have stuff that you want to be passed onto your spouse upon passing, either make them joint owner, or even better yet, get a will!

That reminds me, anyone know how much it costs to setup a will with a lawyer? How about the DIY kind?

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Frugal Trader


FT is the founder and editor of Million Dollar Journey (est. 2006). Through various financial strategies outlined on this site, he grew his net worth from $200,000 in 2006 to $1,000,000 by 2014. You can read more about him here.
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11 years ago

[…] Year Ago today, I answered a reader question about not having a will and where assets would go. It goes to show how important wills can […]

Sue Green
12 years ago

Recently my step mother passed away leaving her son as sole beneficiary and her daughter as a beneficiary to her 4 insurance policies. She and my father had the son, the daughter is by previous marriage. My dad passed away 5 years ago. There was not a Will. But the son states he gets the house and the contents. Without a will wouldn’t this go into Probate? Who is Probate? And how do they know when someone dies? I am sure he (the son) is not going to make any reports. I feel that her and daughter and I have just as much rights to the contents of the house as he does. I know he would get more than we would because he is a product of their union and the daughter and I would get a small portion. But I am sure he is not going to report the death so he can have everything. Can you advise?
Thank you for your time.

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12 years ago

[…] me to contribute to their group writing project about wills and estate planning. I’ve written about wills before with it being a must have item if you care at all about where your assets go upon passing. However, […]

13 years ago

FrugalTrader: Firstly, IANAL. When a home is jointly owned, the owners (usually spouses) are both 100% owners of the property from day one. When one dies, the property automatically becomes 100% owned by the other joint owner – the home doesn’t form part of the estate. Debts of the deceased would be paid out of his or her other assets.

This is different from property that is owned as “tenants in common”. If two (or more) people are tenants in common for a property, they each own a share of that property – 50/50, 60/40, 30/30/40, or some other type of split. In this circumstance, if one of the “tenants in common” dies, their share of the property would become part of their estate, and could be used to pay out their debts.

This is one of the reasons that it’s a VERY good idea to talk to a lawyer when figuring out how property will be owned, and when drafting a will. The rules are complicated and don’t always seem like “common sense”. The rules for property ownership vary depending on the jurisdiction as well.

13 years ago

Brandi: When somebody dies, their debts get paid out of any assets that the estate might have. The deceased’s debts always get paid first, and any funds remaining from the sale of the deceased’s assets would be paid out to the beneficiaries. This is the case whether there is a will or not – instructions in a will only apply to the estate’s assets AFTER all debts are paid.
If the debts are larger than the estate’s assets, then the beneficiaries won’t receive anything from the estate. They won’t inherit the debt, though.

13 years ago

what happens when a deceased person leaves no will and has alot of debt?

13 years ago

About the price of a will… I went to my notary a few months ago about that. I was given 3 different prices ($CAD) depending on what you exactly want :
– ~$450 basic will
– ~$700 will involving the creation of a company
– ~$900 will involving the creation of a trust

I am not very sure about how work the different settings: the difference consists in losing less in taxes in the end.

Hope that helps a bit…

13 years ago

Ditto the “GET A WILL” comment, but I’d add that it’s a very good idea to get one done by a real lawyer, instead of with a “kit”. It’s money well spent, as it’ll minimize the chances of fights among your beneficiaries. It shouldn’t cost more than $400 to get a pair of wills done. Considering the wills will affect your entire estate (potentially hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars), it’s a fairly low price to pay.
13 years ago

This will certainly vary from one location to the next.

Additionally, if both spouses die and there are no children, in many states/regions, it will go to living family members in various orders set by law. It can be a very complex process. If there isn’t much of an estate left, the cost of the process itself can be prohibitive.

The bottom line, get a will…

13 years ago

As FB points out, it really depends on where you live. In Ontario, its everything to spouse if no kids; if spouse and 1 kid, its 50%/50% and if spouse and multiple kids, the spouse take 33% and the remainder split among # of kids.

As I understand it, if a RSP has no beneficiary, it goes to the estate and probate is applied. If the beneficiary is the spouse, a spousal rollover applies and no tax is deferred.

A power of attorney should be obtained in addition to a will in the event the spouse has to control the financial and health affairs of their partner in the event of incapacity.