Succession Laws

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What are Succession Laws?

With regards to estates, succession laws determine how property will be distributed upon the death of the estate holder.  The distribution of property upon death is often known as “inheritance succession”, or “intestate succession”.

Normally, property distributions after death are done according to the person’s intention as stated in their will.  However, if the person dies “intestate” (without a will), then succession laws step in and determine the distributions.  This becomes necessary especially if the estate owner’s intentions cannot otherwise be determined. 

How do Succession Laws Determine the Property Distributions?

In general, succession laws create a preference hierarchy for the order of priority for distributions.  Close relatives such as a spouse and children take first priority and will receive distributions from the estate before other persons.  More distant relatives will receive distributions after closer relatives have received their share, if any is left. 

While this order may vary by state, most succession laws distribute estate shares in the following order:  surviving spouse first, then children; parents of the deceased; siblings, nephews, or nieces; grandparents; and lastly, uncles, aunts, and cousins.

Are Succession Laws the Same in Every State?

No- definitely not.  Each state may have different rules regarding inheritance succession.  For example, the intestate succession laws in California are very different from the intestate succession laws in New York

One of the main factors in succession laws between states is whether the state is a community property state or not.  The distribution of property often varies depending on whether the state follows community property rules as opposed to other marital property laws. 

What Happens if Succession Laws are Violated?

Succession laws can be violated in a number of ways, such as:

Violations of succession laws can result in criminal charges against the offender.  These can be punishable by fine or some time in jail.  Also, violations of succession laws often involve many other forms of crime, such as fraud or falsifying a tax return.  Thus, a person who violates succession laws can be found guilty on more than one count.

Also, it is common for the surviving relatives to file a civil suit against a person who wrongfully tries to claim property from the deceased person’s estate.  A civil lawsuit can result in a monetary damages award to compensate the family for losses caused by the violation.  Civil lawsuits over succession matters can occur even between members of the same family.        

In order to avoid such disputes, it is always best if a person has a valid will in place well before they become ill or incapacitated.  Having a will is the best way to avoid having to resort to succession laws to determine property distributions. 

Do I Need a Lawyer for Help with Succession Laws?

If you have any questions or issues regarding the succession laws in your area, you may wish to contact a lawyer.  An experienced attorney can assist you with a wide range of tasks, such as creating a will, researching succession laws, or helping with property distributions.  Also, if you are involved in a dispute over estate matters, your lawyer can represent your interests in court. 

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Last Modified: 08-30-2011 11:23 AM PDT

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