Who Inherits When There Is No Will in California?

Who inherits when there is no will in California? A simple estate plan drafted by a professional can save you headaches from incomplete plans.

Dying intestate? You might want to think twice. Passing away without a will or any other form of estate planning means that the State needs to decide what to do with what you leave behind – and will automatically distribute what you owned based on state law. This means, by and large, that your assets and property will pass on to your next of kin.

But you will have no control over who gets what and how it might be split. This can include estranged siblings, ex-spouses mid-divorce, or a neglectful parent you haven’t spoken to in ten years. In other cases, dying without a will can mean that your unmarried partner gets nothing, including the house you lived in for decades.

Understanding Succession in California

If you have no will, you are dying intestate. So what does this mean for who inherits when there is no will in California? This means you are dying without providing testimony on how you wish your belongings to be distributed, from in- and testatus.

Some of the basics surrounding inheritance and intestacy date back to the early days of English, Canon, and Roman law, but modern rules in the United States are defined and codified in every State’s inheritance legislation.

There are distinct differences between states regarding who gets what and why. The most apparent distinction is that certain states are based on common law. In contrast, others enforce community property (ensuring that half of everything owned in marriage goes to the surviving spouse). Another distinction is differences in the order of succession between states.

The order of succession defines how an estate is split among surviving kin after a person dies intestate. In community property states, like California, the surviving spouse gets:

  • Half of everything obtained or owned throughout a marriage, and;
  • Half or one-third (depending on whether the decedent had one or several children) of the decedent’s separate property.

The rest goes to the surviving next of kin, in order of children, parents, and siblings. The spouse gets everything if there are no kids, surviving parents, and siblings. If there is no spouse, i.e., if the decedent was a widow/er, divorced, or unmarried, then the next of kin inherit first. Aside from spouses, this generally only includes registered domestic partners and blood relatives. No matter how long the relationship lasted, friends or unmarried partners receive nothing.

After children/descendants, the surviving parent(s) is the next in line. Then come the siblings. These terms follow per stirpes, which means that if any of these beneficiaries die before the decedent died, their respective descendants/beneficiaries inherit in proportion to the share the predeceased beneficiary was entitled to. This means that if a fifth of your estate was supposed to go to your brother but died before you did, his three children each receive a third of that fifth.

Who Inherits When There Is No Will, Close Relatives

Furthermore, there are no close relatives, the next of kin would be any nieces and nephews, grandparents, aunts or uncles, great aunts or uncles, then cousins, and finally, the parents or siblings of a predeceased spouse. Again, these may inherit per stirpes if they are the beneficiaries of a predeceased relative.

After things get this complicated, they get relatively simple. If there are no potential relatives to bequeath to, the inheritance is ultimately escheated to the State of California. This means it becomes the State’s property. At this point, if it remains unclaimed, the property and any assets are eventually sold for State funds or used for State purposes. This does not happen very often.

Why Would I Need a Will?

Dying without a will can lead to many questions, problems with bequeathment, and general discontent in the family. The stirpes law, the default for intestate succession, can further add to the confusion and even lead to disputes within the family.

Even if you are potentially leaving behind a modest estate, any wealth bequeathed to you shortly before your death will become a part of your estate and be planned accordingly. Furthermore, wills can be used for more than simple asset allocation and beneficiary designation.

Wills are the only valid piece of estate planning that lets you determine who should care for your children when you die. Wills are also simple to make and allow you to designate property and assets to your closest friends and loved ones who aren’t blood relatives or registered partners.

While it is harder to write an ex-spouse out of an inheritance in the middle of a lengthy divorce process, divorces and remarrying can greatly muddle the waters without a carefully crafted estate plan and proper changes made to your beneficiary designations.

Wills Aren’t Everything

Of course, there is more to an estate plan than a will. Many examples of property and assets cannot be distributed through wills. Even if you die intestate, these assets probably have beneficiary designations that ensure they are rightfully passed on to the people you originally wanted to bequeath them to. They include:

  • The remaining funds are in an IRA or a retirement plan with a beneficiary.
  • Life insurance payouts.
  • Property and accounts with a designated beneficiary are often written through a so-called payable-on-death or transfer-on-death clause.
  • Property and assets are held in a trust.

These assets and property do not pass through probate, either. Probate is the process by which a local court oversees the distribution of your estate after death. In a probate court, an executor or administrator is chosen for your estate (usually a close relative or whoever filed the petition for probate). The court oversees their progress as they assess and distribute your estate as per intestate law.

When a will does exist, it becomes the executor’s job to execute it accordingly. However, depending on the size and complexity of your estate, the probate process can be lengthy and expensive. Reducing the total value of your probable estate to under $166,250 (as of 2020) allows you to expedite the process in California.

You can do this by taking advantage of the aforementioned beneficiary clauses on accounts and properties and funding the remaining assets into living trusts rather than distributing them through a will.

Is Estate Planning Always Complicated?

Estate plans can be simple or complicated, depending on what you own and where you own them. Whether you need a light estate plan to distribute your assets smartly or one that accounts for complicated federal tax laws, generational tax considerations, and probate costs, it is always a good idea to work with an estate planning professional.

This is to drastically cut down on the time and money you spend working on your estate plan. A simple estate plan drafted by a professional is priceless and can save you the headache of an incomplete or incompatible DIY plan. Still have questions? Contact us to learn more about who inherits when there is no will in California.

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