I watched this movie yesterday, and there's a scene in it where they execute an entire Mafia family (parents, siblings, cousins, relatives and whatnot). It made me think of this question.

If an entire family dies, who gets to keep all their savings, investments etc...? Does the bank take the savings, the investment company the investments, or does the state keep everything? Or does it go somewhere else completely?

  • 15
    There are always living relatives if you look far enough.
    – Vikki
    Commented Feb 12, 2020 at 21:56
  • 2
    There's an amazing NYT article that chronicles the process of trying to track down next of kin after a man died alone in his apartment: The Lonely Death of George Bell Commented Feb 13, 2020 at 15:12

1 Answer 1


TL;DR State keeps everything.

What exactly happens largely depends on the particular state's probate laws. These laws are notoriously complicated and vary greatly between the states.

In very rough lines, here's what happens using California as an example.

If a family member left a valid will, the assets are going to be distributed according to the will.

If there's no will (see, intestacy), the state will determine heirs according to intestate succession laws. At this stage the assets may go to distant relatives, e.g. California Probate Code (PROB) §6402:

(g) If there is no surviving next of kin of the decedent and no surviving issue of a predeceased spouse of the decedent, but the decedent is survived by the parents of a predeceased spouse or the issue of those parents, to the parent or parents equally, or to the issue of those parents if both are deceased, the issue taking equally if they are all of the same degree of kinship to the predeceased spouse, but if of unequal degree those of more remote degree take in the manner provided in Section 240.

And, if there're no inheritors, the assets escheat to the state, e.g. PROB §6800:

(a) If a decedent, whether or not the decedent was domiciled in this state, leaves no one to take the decedent’s estate or any portion thereof by testate succession, and no one other than a government or governmental subdivision or agency to take the estate or a portion thereof by intestate succession, under the laws of this state or of any other jurisdiction, the same escheats at the time of the decedent’s death in accordance with this part.

The state will liquidate the assets and distribute the money according to law, e.g. PROB Ch. 6. Distribution to State:

11900. (a) The court shall order property that is not ordered distributed to known beneficiaries to be distributed to the state.
(b) Insofar as practicable, any real property or tangible personal property shall be converted to money before distribution to the state.
11903. (a) Property distributed to the state shall be held by the Treasurer for a period of five years from the date of the order for distribution, within which time any person may claim the property in the manner provided by Title 10 (commencing with Section 1300) of Part 3 of the Code of Civil Procedure.
(b) A person who does not claim the property within the time prescribed in this section is forever barred, and the property vests absolutely in the state, subject to the provisions of Title 10 (commencing with Section 1300) of Part 3 of the Code of Civil Procedure.

Each of these steps has the potential to become Jarndyce v Jarndyce-level nightmare with outstanding debts, multiple wills, and competing heirs.

  • 5
    The real nightmare is that your estate could go to those in-laws you detest. But a will precludes that.
    – ab2
    Commented Feb 12, 2020 at 17:45
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    It's also quite rare for there to be no distant relatives who can claim the estate. That's what the business of "heir hunting" is based on.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Feb 12, 2020 at 18:35
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    @Will Good point. But there are ways to ensure that your inlaws (and/or one, several or all of your relatives get nothing). For example, explicitly disinherit them and leave all your money to charities. Another example, leave money to the people you want to get something in the form of a charitable remainder unitrust. I am sure there are other trust arrangements that will disinherit those whom you want to disinherit, but this is not a DIY enterprise.
    – ab2
    Commented Feb 12, 2020 at 21:51
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    I wonder what happens if person A is killed a few seconds before person B, person A's will says to give all the money to person C and person B's will says to give all money to person A, if they're still alive, otherwise to person D. Someone would have to prove that A died before B, but that might not be clear in all cases. Commented Feb 13, 2020 at 0:47
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    @ab2MonicaNotForgotten: The reason isn't the time it takes for news to travel, but to time it can take for someone to die. This sounds morbid, but the underlying idea here is that a car crash may kill one person and fatally wound another. It happens often enough that a victim of a car crash dies several weeks later of sustained trauma. In such cases there is no question who died first, but it can still make sense to treat the two deaths as simultaneous deaths.
    – MSalters
    Commented Feb 13, 2020 at 14:22

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