Wills and Probate Questions & Answers


What happens to my property at my death? When you die in Iowa, your property can be transferred by trust, joint ownership or by naming a beneficiary for property like an IRA, insurance policy or bank account. Property can also be transferred at your death under Iowa's probate laws.

What is a will? A will is a document that allows any person of sound mind who is 18 or over (16 if married) to dispose of property at their death that is not distributed by other means.

What happens if I do not have a will? If you do not have a will, any property that is not transferred by other means (for example by joint ownership, a trust, or designation of a beneficiary) is distributed under Iowa's probate laws in the following order:

  • Spouse and Children. Your spouse will receive all your property if you either have no children or all of your children are also your spouse's children. If you have children from a previous marriage, your spouse will receive a portion of your property with the rest to be divided equally among your children from the previous marriage. If you have no spouse, your property will go to your children. If a child has died, that child's children will share the child's share, and so on down the line.
  • Parents. If you have no spouse or descendants, your property will go to your parents.
  • Brothers and Sisters. If you have no living spouse, children or parents, then the estate goes to your brothers and sisters, then your nieces and nephews, etc.
  • Other Relatives. If none of the above relatives are living, then the estate goes to your grandparents and down from there. If you have none of these relatives, then your estate goes to the descendants of your deceased spouse.
  • State of Iowa. If there is no one in any of the above groups, then your estate goes to the state of Iowa.

What are some advantages of a will? Advantages include the ability to:

  • keep full control over your property until your death,
  • make specific gifts either directly or by referring to a written list,
  • nominate a guardian for minor children,
  • create a trust for minor children,
  • name who you want to administer your estate,
  • avoid a bond, and
  • lower taxes.

How can a will be revoked? You can revoke a will by executing another will or by revoking or cancelling your will with the intent to revoke it.

When should I change my will? You should review your will for possible changes if:

  • you change your mind about who you want to inherit your property,
  • you get married or divorced,
  • your spouse, child, or other beneficiary dies or has a serious illness,
  • you have a substantial change in the size of your estate,
  • you acquire property in another state,
  • tax, property, trust or probate laws change, or
  • you move to another state.

What is Probate? Probate is the formal court process of distributing an estate at death. Probate is often necessary to transfer title to the estate's assets, settle claims of creditors, and resolve disputes between heirs or other people.

Must a will be probated? No law says a will must be probated. Probate can often be avoided if :

  • No one disputes your will or how your property is to be distributed,
  • There is no real estate or it is held in joint tenancy with right of survivorship,
  • Beneficiaries are named for insurance policies,
  • Beneficiaries are named for bank and investments accounts or they are held jointly, and,
  • All bills and debts are settled or paid.

For additional information on wills, probate and other issues of importance to older Iowans, please contact the Legal Hotline for Older Iowans at 1-800-992-8161. The Legal Hotline for Older Iowans is a project of Iowa Legal Aid.

Iowa Legal Aid provides help to low-income Iowans. 

To apply for help from Iowa Legal Aid:

  • Call 800-532-1275. 
  • Iowans age 60 and over, call 800-992-8161.
  • Apply online at

If Iowa Legal Aid cannot help, look for an attorney on “Find A Lawyer”   A private attorney there can talk with you for a fee of $25 for 30 minutes of legal advice.

*As you read this information, remember this article is not a substitute for legal advice.

Last Review and Update: Jul 16, 2019

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