Morris & Morris, A Law Corporation - Estate Planning

What does “intestate” mean for California inheritance?

No one understands your family and your family members’ needs better than you do, but if you don’t communicate those needs, the State of California has its own plans.

The term is “intestate succession,” and it applies to any Californian who doesn’t create a will before passing.

What is not covered by intestate succession?

If a Californian dies without a will, intestate succession law directs the distribution of that individual’s assets. However, the deceased may also have owned assets that intestate succession doesn’t cover, such as:

  • Joint bank accounts
  • Insurance plans that appoint a beneficiary
  • Property held in the name of a trust

Where does the state direct the assets?

California’s intestate succession law aims to divide a deceased person’s assets between his or her closest relatives in a fairly commonsense fashion.

  • When someone dies, if that person has children but no spouse, the children get everything.
  • If the person has a spouse, but no children, parents, siblings, nieces or nephews, the spouse gets everything.
  • If the person has a spouse and children, the spouse gets all “community” assets (assets bought during the marriage), and the spouse and children each get shares of all assets belonging solely to the deceased, based on the number of children.

The law continues to look for ways to direct assets toward close relatives such as parents, siblings, and grandparents.

Who gets the house, car and heirlooms?

Possibly no one. Intestate succession offers no guarantee that anyone will actually end up living in, driving away with, or wearing any of the deceased individual’s physical assets.

For example, if the deceased leaves behind a house that is jointly owned, it becomes the property of the surviving owner or owners. If the house was solely owned, however, it follows intestate succession. In this case, the person appointed as executor will likely sell the house and divide the proceeds among inheritors according to the ratios set by state law.

The executor might also divide automobiles, jewelry, artwork and other valuable assets in the same fashion.

How long does it take to distribute the assets?

There are six steps to the distribution of probate assets in California, and the whole process can easily take several months to a year. If the distribution of assets becomes contentious, the process may take even longer.

Your plan for the future

The law doesn’t recognize your family’s special needs. Nor does it recognize that certain assets may be equitable even if they aren’t worth the same monetary value. It certainly doesn’t recognize if a cousin or friend deserves to inherit property or if certain items should pass to your children, rather than your spouse.

If your plan for the future doesn’t line up exactly with California’s — or if you don’t know how to make sense of California’s rules for intestate succession — you will likely want to draft a will.

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