If there is no will in place to determine who inherits a decedent's assets, the order of inheritance is determined by state law, which varies, according to Nolo. Generally, spouses, domestic partners and blood relatives inherit, with spouses receiving the largest portion of the estate. In most states, the inheritance then goes to children, followed by relatives.
Laws regarding the order of inheritance exclude any property that is already distributed under other areas of the law, such as shared domiciles, life insurance policies and stocks or real estate deeds that contain a clause naming the person to whom the property transfers upon death, states Nolo. When there are no children, surviving spouses generally receive all of the property, while distant relatives only inherit if there is no surviving spouse or children. If no relatives can be found, the state takes the decedent's assets.
If couples were separated or about to divorce previous to death, a judge may have to decide if the surviving spouse is included in the order of inheritance, according to Nolo. In states that allow common-law marriages, these partners are generally treated the same as spouses who had ceremonies. The partner in a same-sex marriage should not have difficulty claiming first in line for inheritance in states that allow gay marriage, but the law is not clear in other states, as of 2015.