Testate vs. Intestate: What’s the difference?

Testate is when someone died with a will and intestate is when someone died without a will

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Elissa SuhSenior Editor & Disability Insurance ExpertElissa Suh is a disability insurance expert and a former senior editor at Policygenius, where she also covered wills, trusts, and advance planning. Her work has appeared in MarketWatch, CNBC, PBS, Inverse, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and more.

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A will is a legal document that lays out what happens to your assets when you pass away, and dying without one can have consequences for your loved ones. Without a will, you’ve “died intestate,” or left behind an intestate estate, and who receives your assets will be determined by state law. On the other hand, when you have a proper will in place you leave behind a testate estate, which is distributed to your chosen beneficiaries. That’s why it’s imperative to create a will as part of your estate plan that clearly lays out your wishes for what happens to your belongings in the future.

Key takeaways

  • Executors are in charge of settling testate estates, while administrators settle intestate estates

  • Testate estate assets are received by named beneficiaries, while intestate estate assets are distributed to heirs according by state intestacy law

  • You can prevent dying intestate through proper estate planning, which includes a will

What does testate mean?

Testate is an estate planning term used to describe when someone dies with a valid last will and testament. The will document was properly written, executed, and witnessed, and passes muster in probate court so the terms can be followed and carried out. 

A strong estate plan starts with life insurance

When someone “dies testate,” a personal representative of the estate, usually called the executor, distributes the decedent's assets to beneficiaries in the will. The estate is still considered testate if you forgot to name an executor or your chosen executor declines to serve. Someone will just need to petition the court to settle the estate and oversee the probate process (as administrator, usually by filing for letters of administration with probate of will annexed.)

Related article: Does a will need to be probated?

What does intestate mean?

Intestate is used to describe when someone dies without a valid will, because they didn't make one, created an invalid will, or the will cannot be found. (Find out where to store a will.)

When a person dies in intestacy, their heirs are determined by state law. The surviving spouse typically winds up inheriting some, if not all of the estate assets, but it can depend on who else survived the decedent. For example, a decedent's parents may be entitled to inherit a portion of the intestate estate in some circumstances. Community property states also have their own laws regarding what happens to marital and separate property.

Under intestate succession laws, more closely related blood relatives have a right to inherit over more distant next-of-kin. You can find out more about intestacy law where you live in our guide to state wills

The administrator (vs an executor) is responsible for distributing the decedent's property to the right heirs when there is no will. They may be able to settle an intestate estate through probate alternatives, like an small estate affidavit, when the value of the estate value falls below a certain amount.