What happens when a person dies without a will

When someone in New Zealand dies without a will, dealing with their estate is more complicated than if they had died with one. Dying without a will is called “dying intestate”.

When you have made a valid will, in it you decide who will deal with your estate and how your assets will be distributed. If you die without a will, the Administration Act 1969 (“the Act”) is applied to determine who is entitled to be named as the Administrator of the deceased’s estate. Then the Administrator makes the call as to how the deceased’s assets are distributed in accordance with the law. This application is made to the Registrar of the High Court and is called obtaining Letters of Administration.

A person cannot be nominated as a deceased person’s administrator by other family members and then just get on with it. This must be decided by the Registrar, applying the Act. The Registrar determines who will be the most suitable administrator, based upon all of the facts, then the Administrator takes on the same role as if they were named the Executor in a person’s will. This can cause significant delays which in turn can cause undue stress upon the surviving family and delays in administering the estate which can also become costly.

If the deceased person’s assets are not valued at more than $15,000 in total, the family can administer the estate without applying to the Registrar of the High Court, but the rules in the Act must still be followed in terms of who gets what and in what order and amounts.

Steps to take:

1. Establish there is no will
You will need to search thoroughly through all of the deceased’s papers and, where possible, contact any law firms you think they could have used in the area.

2. Establish the amount and value of the assets
You will need to gather as much information as possible immediately to determine what the estate is worth.

3. Decide who is going to be nominated as the administrator of the estate
The Act states in what order of priority a person can apply to be named as the deceased’s administrator.

4. Advertise
You will need to place an advertisement in the local paper, and perhaps national papers, and in a NZ Law Society publication, asking if anyone holds a will for the deceased. Do this as soon as possible.

5. Request a Status of Children search
This must be done to establish whether the deceased had more children than you or the immediate family know about. You must also search the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registry.

6. Consult an estate lawyer
By this stage, but preferably at the beginning, you will have met with the chosen estate lawyer to have them advise you, and the family, about the required steps and to prepare all of the documents necessary for the High Court application for the appointment of the Administrator. Once the Letters of Administration are obtained, the lawyer will also proceed to prepare any further documents required and assist you with distributing the estate, particularly if it is a large one, and especially where it leaves large sums of money on trust for under age beneficiaries.

Note: This is a brief description of the process, which can often be a lot more complex, and we recommend that you always consult with an estate lawyer before proceeding to deal with anyone’s estate.


Kirralee Fisher

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