Traditionally, a state statute of descent and distribution provides the order of preference for disposal of an intestate’s net estate. As a general rule, the person or persons with the highest rank in the order of preference who survive the intestate take all of the intestate’s net estate.
In most statutes of descent and distribution, a surviving spouse has the highest preference. Unless the surviving spouse has waived the right to inherit in a prenuptial agreement or separation agreement, the surviving spouse is usually entitled to all or a substantial portion of the intestate’s net estate. After a surviving spouse, or if there is no surviving spouse, children usually take a substantial portion of the intestate’s net estate.
If an intestate dies and leaves no heirs, the intestate’s net estate becomes the property of the state. The process is known as escheat (pronounced: ess-cheat). To avoid escheat, a significant effort should be made to find any heirs of an intestate.