What happens to a deceased person's money and possessions?

Introduction

When a person dies, their property passes to their personal representative. The personal representative then distributes the deceased's person’s assets (money, possessions and property) in accordance with the law, the will - if there is one - or the laws of intestacy if there is no will. These assets are described as the deceased person’s estate.

Here you can read about the law on what happens to the estate where a person has left a will, or died without leaving a will (died intestate).

The personal representative is known as:

  • The executor where there is a will
  • The administrator where there is no will, no executor appointed in the will, or the executor cannot or will not carry out their duties

Our document, Dealing with the deceased person’s money and possessions explains what the personal representative has to do with the estate.

If the person who has died left a valid will, the personal representative will distribute the deceased person’s assets according to their wishes. You can read about how to make a valid will.

Money in the bank, insurance policies and savings

If money is held in the deceased person’s name only, then family members usually cannot get access until probate is granted to the personal representative.

But if the amount in an account is small, the bank may release it to the personal representative or the next of kin.

Bank accounts in joint names

If the bank account is in the joint names of the deceased and the deceased's spouse or civil partner, the money can usually be transferred into the survivor's name. You will need the death certificate to do this.

If there is an account with more than €50,000, you will also need a letter of clearance from Revenue allowing the money to be transferred to the surviving spouse or civil partner.

Spouses and civil partners are not liable for Capital Acquisitions Tax (CAT) on inheritances from each other.

If the bank account is in the joint names of the deceased and someone else, and the bank was given instructions when the account was opened that the other person was to receive the money on the death of the deceased, the money can be transferred into the survivor's name.

You will need the death to do this. If there is an account with more than €50,000, you will also need a letter of clearance from Revenue, allowing the money to be transferred into the surviving spouse or civil partner's name pending investigations about CAT liability.

Where the bank has no instructions, the intentions of the deceased person will have to be examined (for example, their will)

Credit union accounts

If the deceased person had a credit union account and completed a valid Nomination Form when opening the accountthe money inthe account up to a maximum of €23,000 goes to the person or persons nominated on the form. Any remaining balance forms part of the deceased's estate and is distributed in accordance with succession law.

Occupational and personal pensions

The rules governing occupational and personal pensions depend on the terms of the pension. If the deceased person was a member of a pension scheme, you should contact the scheme administrators to find out if there is a pension for the spouse, civil partner and/or children. Self-employed people may have pension arrangements that involve some of the investments becoming part of the deceased's estate.

Divorced people and those whose civil partnership has been dissolved may have access to some part of the pension scheme depending on whether or not a pension adjustment order was made at the time of the divorce or dissolution.

The legal right share

If you have left a will, and your spouse or civil partner has never renounced or given up their rights to your estate, then they are entitled to a legal right share of your estate. This legal right share is:

  • One-half of your estate if you do not have children
  • One-third of your estate if you do have children

Your spouse/civil partner does not have to go to court to get this share, as your executor must give this share where applicable. If you leave a gift to your spouse or civil partner in your will, they can choose to accept the gift instead of their legal right share or they can insist on their legal right share (and the specific gift as part of that legal right share, if it is of less value that the legal right share).

Your executor must inform your spouse or civil partner in writing of their right to choose between these two options and your spouse or civil partner must ask for their legal right share within 6 months of being notified, or within 12 months of the taking out of the Grant of Representation.

Where a legal right share does not apply

Your spouse or civil partner can renounce (give up) their rights to the legal right share. This can be part of an agreement before marriage or civil partnership or the spouse or civil partner can give up their rights to benefit their children or other named beneficiaries.

If there is evidence of undue influence or evidence that the spouse or civil partner did not understand what they were doing, the renunciation may be challenged. It is normally advised that a spouse or civil partner get independent legal advice if renouncing their legal right share.

The legal right share can be lost where the spouse or civil partner is:

  • Convicted of the murder, manslaughter or attempted murder of the deceased person
  • Convicted of an offence against the deceased person or a child that carries a sentence of more than 2 years

Divorce, separation and desertion

Separation agreements usually include a renunciation of both spouses’ or civil partner’s legal right share.

If you are divorced or your civil partnership was dissolved, you do not have to provide a legal right share.

If your spouse or civil partner deserted you for more than 2 years, they are not entitled to a legal right share unless they deserted you as a result of your behaviour (for example, domestic abuse).

Cohabiting partners

Partners, who live with each other but are not married or in a civil partnership, have no automatic legal right to each other's estates, although under the redress scheme for cohabiting couples introduced by the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Act 2010 a qualified cohabitant can apply for a share of the estate of a deceased cohabitant.

You can leave some or all of your estate to your partner but this does not cancel out the legal rights of a spouse or civil partner if you were married before to someone else and did not get divorced or had your civil partnership dissolved.

Rights of children under a will

Children do not have any absolute right to inherit any of their parent's estate if the parent has made a will. Children born inside or outside marriage and adopted children all have the same rights and there are no age restrictions.

However, a child can apply to court if they feel that they have not been provided for. An application must be made within 6 months of the taking out of a Grant of Representation. The court then has to decide if the parent has failed in their duty to the child in accordance with the needs of that child.

Each case is considered individually, but it is important to remember that the legal right share of the spouse cannot be reduced to give the child a greater share of the estate. It can, however, reduce the entitlement of a civil partner.

The family or shared home

The surviving spouse or civil partner may ask to keep the family or shared home instead of their legal right share, although if the house is worth more than the legal right share, the spouse or civil partner may have to pay the difference into the deceased's estate. A court may decide that this sum does not have to be paid if it would cause undue hardship

What happens when there is no will?

If you die without leaving a will, then your estate will be distributed in accordance with the law of succession.

This also happens:

  • When the will is not valid because it was not made properly
  • When a legal challenge to the validity of the will has been successful

The law of succession also applies to assets which are not covered by a will such as where there is no residuary clause

The order in which your estate is distributed in these cases is set out in the Succession Act 1965.

If you are survived by:

  • A spouse or civil partner but no children (or grandchildren): your spouse or civil partner gets the entire estate.
  • A spouse or civil partner and children: your spouse/civil partner gets two-thirds of your estate and the remaining one-third is divided equally among your children. If one of your children has died, that share goes to his/her children.
  • Children, but no spouse or civil partner: your estate is divided equally among your children (or their children).
  • Parents, but no spouse, civil partner or children: your estate is divided equally between your parents or given entirely to one parent if only one is living.
  • Brothers and sisters only: your estate is shared equally among them, with the children of a deceased brother or sister taking his/her share.
  • Nieces and nephews only: your estate is divided equally among those surviving.
  • Other relatives only: your estate is divided equally between the nearest equal relations.
  • No relatives: your estate goes to the State.

Page edited: 2 October 2020