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Intestate Succession in California: A Detailed Overview

A comprehensive guide to intestate succession in California, covering estate distribution, probate, and more.

Intestate Succession California

Intestate succession is the process by which an estate is distributed if the decedent passed away without having a valid will or if personal property or estate assets are not placed within the will. In California, intestate succession is governed by the California state probate code §6400-6455.

How Does Intestate Succession Work in California?

In California, the distribution of assets depends on the deceased's marital status, closest relatives, and how property was held.

Here's a simplified breakdown:

  1. For Unmarried Individuals: If the deceased was not married but had adopted or biological children, the children equally inherit all assets. If there are no children, but the deceased's parents are alive, they inherit all assets. If there are no surviving parents, the siblings inherit all assets equally. If there are no siblings, the inheritance order is as follows: grandparents, then aunts or uncles, and then cousins.

  2. For Married Individuals or Registered Domestic Partners: In California, registered domestic partners are treated the same as spouses for intestate succession purposes. If the deceased was married or in a registered domestic partnership at the time of death, the distribution of assets is divided into two categories: community property and separate property.

  • Community Property: Community property in California is classified as assets acquired during marriage, but excludes any inheritances or gifts received during the marriage. In California, both spouses or partners have an equal interest in community property. Upon the death of one spouse or partner, their 50% share of the community property automatically passes to the surviving spouse or partner, without going through probate.

  • Separate Property: Separate property in California is classified as property acquired before marriage or received during the marriage through inheritance or a gift. It also includes any earnings or assets acquired after legal separation. In the event of death without a will, the surviving spouse or partner typically inherits 50% of the separate property. The remaining 50% is distributed to the deceased's children, parents, siblings, and other relatives, according to California's intestate succession law.

Order of Estate Distribution by Intestate Succession Laws in California

Deceased’s survivor(s): Who Inherits:
Children but no spouse Children inherits everything
Spouse with no children, or no immediate next of kin (parents, siblings, nieces, cousins) Spouse inherits everything
Sibling with no other next of kin (parents, children, spouse, relatives) Siblings inherit
Spouse and 1 child Spouse inherits all community property and ½ (50%) of the deceased’s separate property.
Spouse & 2+ children Spouse inherits all community property & ⅓ of deceased's separate property; with children inheriting an evenly split remaining ⅔ of separate property.
Spouse and parents of the deceased Spouse inherits all community property, and ½ (50%) of the deceased’s separate property - with the parents inheriting the remaining ½ (50%) of separate property.
Spouse and siblings, no surviving parents Spouse inherits all community property, and ½ (50%) of separate property. Siblings inherit the remaining ½ (50%) of separate property.

To help illustrate the property distribution by California's intestate laws, our professionals at ClearEstate put together a flow chart to help the visual learners understand a bit better:

Intestate succession California flow chart

Assets Not Covered by Intestate Succession

While intestacy laws dictate the distribution of a deceased person's property when they die without a will, it's important to note that not all assets are subject to intestate laws. Certain types of property are passed directly to named beneficiaries or co-owners, regardless of whether the deceased left a will. Here are some examples:

  1. Living Trusts: Any property that the deceased transferred to a living trust is not subject to intestate succession. Instead, it goes directly to the beneficiary named in the trust document.

  2. Life Insurance Proceeds: The payout from a life insurance policy is not governed by intestate succession. It goes directly to the named beneficiary on the policy.

  3. Retirement Accounts: Funds in retirement accounts, such as an IRA or 401(k), bypass intestate succession. These funds are distributed directly to the named beneficiary on the account.

  4. Transfer-on-Death Accounts: Securities held in a transfer-on-death account, or payable-on-death bank accounts, are not subject to intestate succession. These assets are transferred directly to the named beneficiary upon the account holder's death.

  5. Jointly Owned Property: Property owned with someone else in joint tenancy or as community property with the right of survivorship is not covered by intestate succession. Upon the death of one owner, the property automatically passes to the surviving owner.

The Probate Process Under Intestate Succession Laws

The intestate succession process in California deals with how an individual’s estate is distributed when they die without a will, while the probate process is somewhat similar in intestate scenario's there are some differences in-between a regular probate proceeding and an intestate probate case.

Below is a step-by-step format of the intestate succession process in California:

  1. Determine Intestacy: Confirm that the decedent did not leave a will, or that the will is invalid, meaning that the estate will be subject to intestate succession laws.
  2. Gather Information: Collect information about the decedent’s assets, debts, and potential heirs as per California intestate succession law. This step is crucial to ensure a smooth probate process.
  3. File Petition: File a petition in the Superior Court of the county where the decedent lived to open a probate case. You need to request appointment as the administrator of the estate.
  4. Notice to Heirs and Creditors: Notify the decedent’s heirs, known creditors, and other interested parties about the probate case.
  5. Publish Notice: Publish a notice in a local newspaper of general circulation to inform unknown creditors and other interested parties about the probate proceedings.
  6. Court Appointment: Attend the court hearing. If approved, the court will appoint you as the estate administrator and issue Letters of Administration, which grant you authority to manage the estate.
  7. Inventory and Appraisal: Create an inventory of the decedent’s assets and get them appraised to determine their value at the time of the decedent’s death.
  8. Pay Debts and Taxes: Use the estate’s funds to pay any debts, claims against the estate, and taxes that are due.
  9. File Reports with the Court: File necessary reports and accounting documents with the court detailing how assets were managed, and what debts and taxes were paid.
  10. Distribute Assets to Heirs: Once debts and taxes are settled, distribute the remaining assets to the decedent’s heirs following the California intestate succession laws.
  11. Final Accounting and Petition for Discharge: Submit a final accounting to the court, showing how the assets were distributed. File a petition asking the court to close the estate and release you from your duties as administrator.
  12. Court Approval of Final Distribution: Attend a court hearing for the final approval of asset distribution and closing of the estate.
  13. Close the Estate: Once the court approves, close the estate and distribute any final assets to the heirs as per the court’s order.

Worthy to note:

If the decedent is survived by a spouse or domestic partner, a spousal property petition can be filed. This can help in transferring assets to the surviving spouse or domestic partner without going through the full probate process.

Exploring Uncommon Provisions in California's Intestacy Laws

120 Hour Survivorship Period (Probate Law 6403) This law stipulates that for the purpose of intestate succession, a person who doesn't survive the decedent by at least 120 hours is considered to have predeceased the decedent.

Equal Inheritance Rights for Half-Blood Relatives (Probate Law 6406) This law ensures that half-blood relatives inherit the same share as they would if they were of the whole blood.

Inheritance Rights of Posthumous Relatives (Probate Law 6407) This law states that relatives conceived before but born after the decedent's death inherit as if they had been born during the decedent's lifetime.

Inheritance Rights Irrespective of Citizenship (Probate Law 6411) This law asserts that a person's citizenship or nationality does not disqualify them from inheriting as an heir.

Disqualification of Killers from Inheritance (Probate Law 250) This law disqualifies any person who feloniously and intentionally kills the decedent from inheriting any property, interest, or benefit under the decedent's will or trust.

Frequently Asked Questions

Does a spouse automatically inherit property under intestate succession?

According to California's intestate laws - spouses do not automatically inherit all property. This is only the case when the decedent passed away without any surviving relatives, or if all property is owned and held jointly.

Does a surviving spouse need probate in California?

In California, probate may not always be required for the surviving spouse. If the deceased spouse estate is composed solely of community property or the assets were held in joint tenancy with another individual, including the surviving spouse, the estate can sidestep the probate court.

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