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Dying Without a Will

Dying Without a Will - What Happens In California?

Dying without a will is a problem for our loved ones. You have worked hard all your life, so you want to make sure your wealth goes to your loved ones when you die and is distributed according to your wishes.  


But what happens when you pass away without a will in California?  If there is no will, who gets the decedent’s assets, house, or other real estate? 


 A person who passes away without first establishing a valid will is said to die “intestate”. 


What does that mean?


When someone dies without a valid will, a person’s estate is passed to their heirs according to California laws of intestate succession, which are found in the California Probate Code. 


In California, the transfer of property after death without a will is generally divided among the spouse, children, parents, grandparents, siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces, and nephews of the deceased. 


Even if the decedent is not a California resident but just owns real estate there, the California Probate Code intestate succession laws dictate who inherits the belongings.  The court supervises the transfer of the person’s remaining property and assets through a legal process known as probate.

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What is Probate?


Probate is a court-directed process whereby a decedent’s assets are gathered, the final debts are paid, and the remaining property is distributed to the beneficiaries or heirs. 


Many people wish to avoid the probate process to provide their beneficiaries with an easier time. Probate has the potential to become long and quite expensive. Additionally, as it is a court proceeding, probate proceedings become public. This isn’t something all people are comfortable with. 


Not all assets are probate assets – those that must go through probate before being distributed. 


For example, most life insurance policies are not probate assets so they can be paid to the beneficiary outside of the probate procedure. Real estate that is owned by the decedent and someone else as joint tenants with rights of survivorship also avoids probate, so the home will pass directly to the other joint tenant if it is owned this way.


The good news is that having an estate plan set up early can not only help you be sure your assets are going where you wish, but it can also help your loved ones avoid a lengthy and spendy probate process.

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California Laws of Intestate Succession


When a person dies without a will, their estate is passed along to heirs according to California laws of intestate succession. This varies depending on if you were single, married, or had children. 


In most cases, your property is distributed in split shares to your "heirs," which could include your surviving spouse, parents, siblings, aunts and uncles, nieces, nephews, and distant relatives. Generally, when no relatives can be found, the entire estate goes to the state.

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Who Gets What in California?


Under intestate succession, who gets what depends on who your closest relatives are when you die.


Here’s a quick overview:


  • Surviving spouse and no descendants, parents, or siblings concerning the probate estate in California, the surviving spouse inherits in part how the two owned the property – as divided property or community property. 

  • The surviving spouse and/or surviving parents have no descendants. The surviving spouse acquires all of the deceased spouse's community ownership and one-half of the deceased spouse's separate estate. The surviving parent or parents get one-half of the deceased spouse's separate property.

  • Surviving spouse and/or surviving siblings and no parents or descendants. The surviving spouse receives all of the deceased spouse's community wealth and one-half of the deceased spouse's separate property. The sibling or siblings inherit one-half of the deceased spouse's separate estate.

  • Surviving spouse and children. The surviving spouse obtains one-half of the deceased's community property and one-half or one-third of the separate property, depending on whether the deceased spouse left one child or two or more children. The children inherit the remaining one-half or two-thirds of the deceased person's parted property, and it is distributed per stripe

In regards to children:

  • When someone dies without a will in California, the children will take over an intestate share of the assets. The size of each child’s share depends on how many children there are and whether or not the decedent was married. For children to inherit under the laws of intestacy, the state of California must acknowledge them as legal children.

  • The decedent was singleIf a single and childless adult dies without a will, the parents will inherit the entire wealth if they are both living. Otherwise, it will be parted among siblings (including half-siblings) and the one surviving parent if there is one.

  • Not married but in a domestic partnershipIntestate laws regarding domestic partnerships vary between states. In California, if a domestic partner passes without a will and estate plan, the domestic partner receives all property in the same manner as a legal spouse.


  • An unmarried coupleDying without a will can be overwhelming to unmarried couples who are living under one roof.  Because intestacy laws only recognize relatives, unmarried couples don't get the property of the other partner when one partner dies without having a valid will. 


And now for the twist! 


Many valuable assets don’t go through your will and are not affected by intestate succession laws.

Here are some examples:



  • Life insurance proceeds (they already have a designated beneficiary)


  • Funds in retirement accounts (they usually already have a designated beneficiary)


  • The property you own jointly with another person (automatically transfers to the co-owner)


  • Anything that already has a payable or transfer-on-death designation


  • Vehicles held by transfer-on-death registration


  • The property you own with someone else in joint tenancy or as community property with the right of survivorship


These all pass to the surviving co-owner or to the beneficiary you named, whether or not you have a will. 



Dying Without A Will - Talk to an Attorney Today!

Estate planning can be quite complicated, and you don’t need to go it alone. A lawyer on your side can be an invaluable resource when learning how to avoid probate and prevent the state from controlling the distribution of your assets.


You’re never too young to put an estate plan into place. In the event of an unfortunate and unforeseen accident, you would be happier knowing that you took the best possible care of your family. 


With her years of experience, Andrea Aston has the knowledge and expertise to guide you through every step of the estate plan process. Contact Andrea Aston today at (760) 758-1565 (this phone number should be a link to the phone number) for a complimentary estate planning consultation. 


Tags: dying without a will, dying without a will in California, no will in California, property inheritance, domestic partnership, and death

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