Rhode Island Inheritance Laws

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A person leaves behind his estate (all of his property) when he dies. Inheritance laws address wills, property that cannot be willed, who is entitled to inherit a person’s estate, spouses’ rights and intestate succession. Rhode Island’s laws are set forth in Title 33 of the Probate Practice and Procedure code. Chapter 33-1 addresses intestacy and 33-5 outlines will requirements.

Wills

  • A person can make a will if she is at least 18 years old and “of sane mind,” according to Chapter 33-5-2 of Rhode Island’s probate law. “Of sane mind” more commonly means mentally competent. The will must be in writing and signed in accordance with the requirements set forth in 33-5-5. The document should be typed and the signature must appear at the end of the will. Any provisions added below the signature line are invalid. The will signing must occur in the presence of two witnesses who must also sign the will. Witnesses must be impartial, meaning they cannot be named as beneficiaries in the will.

Spouses' Rights

  • A spouse cannot be disinherited in Rhode Island. The surviving spouse automatically inherits one half of any marital/community property. He will also inherit, in its entirety, any property that he and the spouse owned with a right of survivorship. This will include any joint bank accounts, the marital residence and any other real estate purchased during the marriage because spouses automatically take title to property as tenants by the entirety, which has a right of survivorship.

    If a spouse is left out of the will, he may be entitled to between one-third and one-half of the decedent’s estate. A court will make that determination based on the length of the marriage and the value of any community property the surviving spouse inherited. However, in order to be eligible, a disinherited spouse must contest the will. Failure to do so will allow the decedent’s property to be distributed in full accordance with the will, and the spouse will be entitled to nothing.

    Divorce terminates all spousal rights. If the former spouse was in the will and the will was not updated after a divorce and before the decedent’s death, Chapter 33-5-9.1 states that any provisions leaving property to a former spouse are considered revoked upon issuance of a final divorce decree.

Beneficiaries

  • A decedent can choose anyone to inherit his estate, including family members, friends and charities. Any beneficiary can receive willable property at the decedent’s request. However, community property or property with a right of survivorship cannot pass to anyone other than the spouse or another surviving owner. Additionally, property in trust automatically passes to the beneficiary named in the trust, as do the proceeds of a life insurance policy; the decedent is not permitted to alter those beneficiaries in his will.

Intestacy

  • When a decedent dies without a will, Chapter 33-1 of Rhode Island’s probate law sets forth how the estate passes. If the decedent had children, they and the surviving spouse will each inherit half of the estate. The children will share their half equally. If there is no spouse, the children will share the entire estate. If the decedent is survived by a spouse, but no children, the spouse will inherit $50,000 and half of the estate. The remainder will pass to the decedent’s parents. If the parents are deceased, the other half passes to the decedent’s siblings.

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