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An inheritance can make for happy news and can also bring dire situations and legal troubles. Such was the case of William Van Note and his then-girlfriend Sharon Dickson, who were allegedly murdered by William’s daughter, Susan Van Note, in a home invasion. Susan was theorized to be upset that William willed the majority of his multi-million-dollar estate to Dickson. While William survived the attack, Susan allegedly forged a power of attorney granting her the right to remove him from life support, which eventually led to his death.

Susan was ultimately acquitted and then claimed sole heirship of William’s estate after his passing. However, Sharon Dickson’s son battled Susan for the wrongful death of his mother and the inheritance since he stood as a living legal heir of Dickson. The two heirs eventually agreed on a confidential settlement. 

To an everyday person who knows nothing about Missouri’s inheritance laws, this case may simply look like a daughter who took extreme measures because she was upset about her inheritance. But it actually touched on several legal concepts, such as succession, the slayer rule, and fraud.

This is why it is important to at least know the basics of the state’s inheritance and probate laws, how to determine what a valid will is, and how to contest a suspicious will or inheritance. This article seeks to provide the basic information and resources that can help you obtain legal assistance when faced with inheritance issues in the Show-Me State.

What Happens if Someone Dies With a Will in Missouri?

When a deceased individual leaves behind a valid will, the estate will go through a succession referred to as a “testate.” The decedent’s assets will be distributed according to their will’s instructions. A will indicates how a person wants their property to be handled after death and the people or organizations that should have a share of it.

Requirements for a Valid Will

Some requirements need to be met for a will to be valid and accepted for probate in Missouri. The testator must be at least 18 years old and of sound mind. The will should be in writing and prepared by the testator or their representative, like their estate planning or probate attorney. The testator must sign the will, and the signing must be witnessed by two individuals. The two witnesses must also sign the will. If somebody else is signing the will on the testator’s behalf, it must be signed in the testator’s and the witnesses’ presence. 

Furthermore, a will typed on an iPad and signed by the testator and their witnesses using a stylus may be considered valid as long as the requirements above are fulfilled. Missouri and some other states are already working on legislation to govern electronic wills. 

Probate of a Will

Whether a person passes away with or without a will in Missouri, their estate will have to be probated to legally transfer the assets to the will beneficiaries (also called devisees). That is, unless the decedent doesn't have any property that needs ownership transfer or the estate is valued below $40,000. Small estates under $40,000 undergo a streamlined version of probate, which only lasts a few weeks. 

The steps generally followed in probating a will are below: 

  1. Filing of the decedent’s will and the probate petition - The decedent’s will must be filed with the probate court of the county where the decedent resided or owned property. Whoever has custody of the will must accomplish this step within one year of the decedent’s death.

  2. Appointment of the personal representative (PR) and issuance of letters testamentary - Usually, the will indicates the decedent’s chosen executor. The executor serves as the decedent’s PR and manages the probate process. If no executor is identified, the court appoints one. Typically, it is a family member or devisee. The letters testamentary grant the PR authorization to perform their duties, like collecting the decedent’s assets. 

  3. Notification to creditors and beneficiaries - The court clerk sends notice to the will beneficiaries. For the creditors, the clerk usually publishes a notice in the newspapers. Creditors are given six months from the date of notice to make a claim. 

  4. Inventory of the decedent’s estate - The PR locates and makes an inventory of the decedent’s property, including bank accounts, real estate property, and personal effects. The properties are appraised and become part of the decedent’s “estate.”

  5. Payment of outstanding debts and obligations -  The PR settles the decedent’s debts and obligations, including final medical bills, funeral expenses, estate taxes, and administrative costs. 

  6. Distribution of remaining assets to beneficiaries - Only after the debts and obligations are paid can the PR distribute the inheritances. 

Spouse’s Elective Share

The elective share is usually claimed when there is a valid will and the living spouse is not satisfied with their benefits. The spouse has a right to claim 50% of the estate, regardless of what the will says. This is also called a forced share or electing against the will. 

Non-probate Assets

Not all property needs to go through probate. If the decedent’s property already has a designated beneficiary and legal transfer method, it does not need to be probated. For example, a bank account with a payable-on-death designation automatically transfers the account's ownership to a beneficiary. Other assets that usually already have a beneficiary and transfer method are: 

  • Assets in a trust - Legally, the trust owns the assets, not the decedent, so assets in a trust are not probated. The trust/trustees have control over what happens to the assets.

  • Assets with right of survivorship or joint tenancy - This can usually be seen with jointly owned real estate property. The property goes to the other joint owner or tenant who is still living.

  • Life insurance policies with beneficiaries - The insurance proceeds are directly transferred to the policy’s beneficiaries. 

  • Assets with payable on death designation - This is usually applied to deposit certificates and bank accounts. The POD designation is an instruction to the bank to transfer ownership of accounts upon the owner’s death without the need for probate. 

  • Assets with transfer on death designations - This is usually applied to deeds, bonds, stocks, and titled assets like motor vehicles. Car owners can go to the DMV to have a TOD designation and beneficiary added to their car’s title. Like with POD, ownership is transferred to the named beneficiary without having to go through probate. 

Note that POD and TOD designations override what the decedent wrote in their will. 

Contesting a Will

Only interested parties can contest the validity of a will. An interested party is anyone who stands to inherit if the will is valid or invalid, such as:

  • Any beneficiary of the current will.

  • Any beneficiary of an older or newer will.

  • Any decedent’s heir who would have inherited from the estate if there was no will. 

Some of the legally accepted grounds for a will contest are:

  • Fraud - If the testator’s signature was forged or the will itself was forged.

  • Undue influence - If the decedent’s free will was manipulated or overpowered by another party with whom the decedent had a trusting relationship, such as a caregiver, forcing the decedent to give them an inheritance. 

  • Lack of testamentary capacity - If, during the creation of the will, the decedent suffered from a mental disorder or an ailment affecting their cognitive capacity, like dementia.

  • Presence of another valid will - If a newer will is discovered, the interested parties can contest the current will’s validity. Similarly, if the current will is proven to be a forgery, the interested parties may contest to have an older version declared as the valid will. 

  • Improper execution of the will - If the requirements set under Revised Statutes of Missouri Section 474.320 were not fulfilled.

To file the will contest, the interested party has only six months from the date the will was accepted or rejected for probate or after the notice of the decedent’s estate was published, whichever comes later. 

What Happens if Someone Dies Without a Will in Missouri?

When someone dies without a will (also called intestate), their estate will still undergo probate, but the assets will be distributed to heirs according to Missouri’s intestate succession laws. Note that the non-probate assets mentioned in the previous section are also exempt from this process. Generally, intestate succession laws pass on the decedent's assets to the closest living relatives by marriage or blood. See below for the rules governing inheritances for estates without a will.

If the decedent:

Inheritance according to the law: 

Has a living spouse but no children or descendants*

The spouse gets everything.

Has children but no spouse

The decedent’s children inherit everything.

Has a living spouse and children

The spouse gets the first $20,000 plus 50% of the remaining assets in the estate.

The decedent’s children and descendants get the other 50%.

Has a living spouse and children or descendants from a previous marriage

The spouse gets 50% of the estate.

The children and descendants get the other 50%.

Has parent/s and sibling/s but no spouse, children, or descendants

The parents and siblings get everything, to be split in equal shares.

Has parent/s but no siblings, spouse, children, or descendants 

The parents inherit everything.

Has sibling/s but no parents, spouse, children, or descendants 

The siblings inherit everything.

* “Descendants” means the decedent’s children, grandchildren, or great-grandchildren.

Spousal Rights

Aside from what the spouse inherits according to the state’s intestate succession laws or the decedent’s will, if any, legal spouses also possess additional inheritance rights that they can choose to exercise. These include the rights to exempt property, a one-year support allowance, and a homestead allowance. These are statutory rights, which means they apply even if the decedent had a valid will that disinherits the legal spouse. These are further explained below:

  • Exempt properties - These are listed under Revised Statutes of Missouri Section 474.250. These include family books and clothing, one automobile, electrical home appliances, and home furniture and implements.

  • One-year support allowance - This is given mainly for the maintenance of the surviving spouse or family for one year after the decedent’s death. The amount will be based on the family’s standard of living before the decedent’s death. 

  • Homestead allowance - This allowance can be up to 50% of the estate, but no more than $15,000 (as of 2023). It should exclude the value of the exempt property and the one-year support allowance. Additionally, it offsets — rather than adds to — the spouse's share that the intestate succession law mandates. 

Children’s Rights

Depending on their relationship to the decedent, children may have varying inheritance rights under the intestate succession laws. See below for the nuances in children’s inheritance:

Status of the child

Inheritance rules

Biological child

Will inherit a share in accordance with intestate succession laws.

Biological child given up for adoption

Will not inherit a share. The state considers an adopted child to be the child of the adoptive parent/s and no longer the child of the biological parent. Hence, they are no longer entitled to an inheritance from the biological parent’s estate.

Adopted child

Will inherit a share. According to the premise of Section 474.060 above, legally adopted children of the decedent receive the same treatment and inheritance rights as biological children. 

Biological child born out of wedlock 

The decedent's children outside of marriage will inherit if:

The decedent's paternity is established in court.

The decedent had married the mother and acknowledged the child as their own.

The decedent was married to the mother, but the marriage was voided.

These three conditions are according to Sections 474.060, 474.070, and 474.080.

Biological child conceived before the decedent’s death but born after the decedent’s death

Will inherit a share. Posthumous children are treated the same as children born during the decedent’s lifetime. 

Missouri has no existing statutes yet governing the intestate inheritance of children conceived after the decedent's death using the decedent's genetic material, such as through in-vitro fertilization.

Stepchild, foster child

Will not inherit unless the child was legally adopted by the decedent.


Will inherit a share only if their parent (the decedent’s child) is no longer alive.

These differing inheritance rights of children highlight the importance of having a valid will prepared, especially if minor children are involved. An experienced estate planning attorney can prepare a will that ensures the decedent’s beloved children can receive an inheritance and have a trusted executor or guardian who can manage it.

The Rights of Other Surviving Relatives

In some probate cases, where the decedent has no immediate living relatives (spouse, children, parents, siblings, or grandchildren), the intestacy laws will look for distant blood relatives who can inherit the decedent’s assets. The next in line to inherit are grandparents, uncles and aunts, great-grandparents, and up to ninth-degree relatives. If there are no more relatives and the decedent had a spouse who died before them, that dead spouse’s immediate relatives may inherit.  

Estates With No Heirs

This case is very rare, as Missouri’s intestacy laws dig far into the decedent’s family line to find heirs. But if this happens, the estate becomes forfeited or “escheated” and is taken by the state treasury. 

Unique Situations in Missouri Inheritance Law

There are always unique cases when it comes to inheritances. In Missouri, a spouse who has abandoned the decedent or has committed misconduct is stripped of their right to spousal inheritance. Abandonment means the spouse voluntarily left the decedent without reasonable cause, goes away with an adulterer, or lives with another person in an adulterous situation for at least one year before the decedent’s death. The said spouse will lose any right to inherit from the decedent estate, including their statutory inheritance rights.

Meanwhile, half siblings or relatives can inherit from a decedent's estate if there is no will, but they will receive only half of what a full relative would. For example, if the decedent has two full siblings and one half-sibling, the two full siblings shall get 40% each of the siblings' share, and the half-sibling will only get 20%. 

There are also advanced inheritances allowed in Missouri, such as a decedent giving a portion of their estate to their adult child while they were still living. This advance inheritance will not be subtracted from the child’s inheritance after the decedent's death unless the decedent or child said so in writing.

Additionally, intestate heirs with alien immigration status in Missouri are still entitled to their inheritance. Their immigration status does not affect their right to intestate inheritance. 

Slayer Rule in Missouri

Missouri has no statutes governing the inheritance of heirs who were involved in the murder of the decedent. However, the slayer rule is recognized in common law and supported by the existing statute on spousal abandonment and misconduct. 

In 2022, Ben Renick’s personal representative successfully argued for the decedent’s wife, Lynlee Renick, to be barred from inheritance for her conviction for Ben’s murder. The PR used the spousal misconduct statute for the argument, and the county judge ruled in favor of it. 

Does Missouri Impose Inheritance and Estate Taxes?

Beneficiaries in Missouri can rest easy because there are no required estate or inheritance taxes on the state level. The removal of the estate tax took effect on January 1, 2005

Note that if a beneficiary inherits property located in a state that imposes inheritance taxes, the beneficiary will have to file the tax in that state. 

However, estate tax on the federal level still applies. The IRS has set the lifetime gift and estate tax threshold for 2024 at $13.61 million per person. That means if a person passes away in 2024, leaving an estate worth $15 million, an estate tax will be charged on the $1.39 million exceeding the threshold. 

Legal Resources Related to Inheritance Law in Missouri

Missouri Legal Services

The Missouri Legal Services website provides basic legal information about probates, wills, and estates. It also provides links to Legal Aid clinics across the state for people seeking low-cost or pro-bono legal assistance. Its Senior Citizens Handbook is particularly useful for seniors wanting to start their estate planning.

The MissouriLawyersHelp website is maintained by the Missouri Bar. It contains free informational materials for a variety of legal matters, including probate and wills. Residents who are looking for a probate or estate planning attorney can use the website’s directory of licensed lawyers and lawyer search function. Groups and organizations can also request a speaker who can talk about Missouri’s probate court system. 

Legal Services of Southern Missouri

LSSM caters to the elderly and low-income residents of Missouri. Its lawyers provide both advice and representation for matters involving wills, probate, and estate planning. LSSM lawyers can also represent seniors who require assistance with establishing guardianship and beneficiary deeds. It accepts applications for legal assistance online as well as in person at any of its local offices

Military Matters

The Military Matters program serves veterans and service members who need low-cost or pro-bono legal services in the Kansas City metro. The veteran or service member must meet certain qualifications to obtain legal aid through the program. The program can be reached at

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