When an individual passes away without having a valid will in place, the law will decide how the deceased’s estate will be distributed. This concept is legally referred to as “dying intestate” and the laws that determine how to divide a deceased individual’s estate are known as “intestate succession laws.”

Every state has its own set of intestate succession laws. These laws dictate the order in which property and/or assets belonging to the estate will get distributed and to whom.

Specifically, under California intestacy laws, the closest relatives of a person who dies intestate will be the ones to receive their assets. There are certain limitations to these rules, however, such as: the types of property that are subject to California’s intestacy laws, what the deceased’s spouse is entitled to, how assets are split between the deceased’s children, and the order of how the estate is to be distributed.

The remainder of this article will provide an overview of what can happen when you die without leaving a will in California. For further advice on a particular intestate matter, you should consult a local estate lawyer for assistance.

What Kind of Property Is Subject to Intestate Succession in California?

According to California Probate Code intestacy succession guidelines, only assets that could have passed through a deceased individual’s will (if they had one) are affected by such laws. In general, this usually refers to property and/or assets that are solely owned by the deceased like a registered vehicle or personal belongings that no one else can claim.

This also means that any property and/or assets that are held in a trust, are jointly owned, or have named beneficiaries ascribed to them, will not pass through California intestate succession laws. Instead, they will pass in accordance with the rules governing those specific forms of property. For example, life insurance proceeds will be distributed to the beneficiaries named in the policy.

Some other valuable assets that do not normally pass through a will and thus will not be affected by intestate succession laws include payable-on-death bank accounts, retirement account funds, and securities held in a transfer-on-death account.

How is the Property Transferred to the Surviving Spouse?

Generally speaking, a property transfer refers to the act of conveying property from a current owner to a new owner. The current owner must demonstrate that they intend to transfer the property in question by signing and delivering the associated deed and/or title.

Under California law, the general rule of thumb is that the surviving spouse of someone who dies intestate will usually be the one who receives their property. However, this will ultimately depend on whether the remaining property is considered community or separate property. If it is community property, then it will automatically transfer to their surviving spouse. On the other hand, if it is separate property, it will transfer in accordance with state succession laws.

Community Property

California is one of nine states that follows community property laws. Community property is defined as property that is owned by both spouses and typically includes any property acquired during a marriage. True community property will automatically transfer to the surviving spouse of someone who has died intestate.

Separate Property

Distributing separate property is a much more complicated process and involves adhering to the rules of intestate succession. Separate property is defined as property that is solely owned by the deceased (usually acquired before the marriage) and is not considered community property. It can also include gifts or inheritance that were only intended to be given to one of the spouses.

In such cases, separate property will be distributed in the following ways:

  • If the couple does not have any children, then the surviving spouse will inherit both the community property and all separate property;
  • If the couple has one child, then the surviving spouse will receive all community property and one-half of the separate property; and
  • If the couple has more than one child, then the surviving spouse will receive all community property and one-third of the separate property. The children will inherit the remaining two-thirds of the separate property.

What Happens to the Property If there Is No Surviving Spouse?

In intestate succession cases where there is no surviving spouse, who is entitled to what will depend on the next closest set of relatives. For instance, children are usually next in the inheritance line. Thus, the children of a person who dies intestate and does not have a surviving spouse will inherit all remaining property in equal proportions.

If the deceased does not have any children or a surviving spouse, then the next line of relatives who stand to inherit are their parents. In this instance, their parents will inherit everything. On the off chance that the deceased does not have any existing children, surviving spouse, or remaining parents left, then their siblings will inherit everything.

In cases where the deceased has no living parents, children, siblings, or a surviving spouse, the inheritance will pass to their remaining nieces and nephews (if any). If this is also not a possibility, then the inheritance will continue down the line by first distributing to their grandparents, then to their aunts and/or uncles, and on to various other distant relatives.

If no surviving relatives remain or can be found, then the probate estate will “escheat” to California state. “Escheat” simply means that the deceased’s property will revert to the state. This is the end result of what happens when a person dies intestate and does not have any surviving legal heirs. This is why it is so important to create a will.

Finally, be sure to remember that these rules only apply to property that would pass through a will. Thus, any property contained in a trust, is jointly owned, or is ascribed to a named beneficiary will not be affected by the above order, but rather must comply with the manner that such items are distributed under their governing laws.

Should I Contact an Attorney?

Probating a will is already a complicated process, but when an estate must go through the process of probate without a will, it becomes an exceedingly more difficult procedure to handle without the help of a lawyer.

As is evident from the above discussion, there are many specific rules and laws that must be followed, including the order in which property must be distributed. An individual will also need to know how to classify and be able to understand the differences between what is considered community versus separate property. An experienced estate lawyer will know exactly how to accomplish all of these important tasks.

Therefore, if you are struggling with an intestate succession matter, it may be in your best interest to contact a California wills probate lawyer as soon as possible. A California lawyer will already be familiar with the state’s intestacy laws, can explain how they may affect estate distribution and/or your inheritance, and can help you navigate any property issues that arise during the probate process.

For instance, if you believe you are entitled to specific property and a close relative causes a dispute over you receiving it, your lawyer can assist you in resolving the situation. If out-of-court attempts to settle the matter are unsuccessful, however, your lawyer can also provide guidance on the next steps you should take and can represent you in court on the issue should it become necessary.