With regard to an estate, succession laws determine how property is to be distributed upon the death of the estate’s owner. In legal terms, succession can be defined as taking the rights of another in the capacity of their successor. Typically, succession refers to the transfer of rights and obligations of the decedent to their legal heirs. The distribution of property upon the death of the estate holder is often known as either inheritance succession, or intestate succession.

Generally, property distributions after death proceeds according to the decedent’s (the deceased person’s) intentions as they were stated in the decedent’s will. Inheritance succession adheres to the stated wishes of the decedent. However, if the estate owner dies intestate, succession laws will come into play and determine the distributions. Intestate refers to a person dying without a will, and each state has their own intestacy laws. Intestate succession laws are especially necessary if the estate owner’s intentions cannot otherwise be determined. 

Succession laws typically create a preference hierarchy among potential heirs for the order of priority for the distribution of property. Close relatives, such as the decedent’s spouse and children, take first priority and will likely receive distributions from the estate before any others. Once the closer relatives have received their share, more distant relatives will receive theirs, if anything is left. If the estate owner died intestate, the decedent’s state laws will determine the succession. 

Some states give the surviving spouse a specific amount of the marital property, dividing the rest between the children. However, other states dictate that the spouse receives everything, and the children must rely on the surviving parent to leave them anything that remains at their death.

While the order of succession varies from state to state, most succession laws distribute estate shares in the following order:

  • Surviving spouse;
  • Children;
  • Parents of the deceased;
  • Siblings;
  • Nieces and nephews;
  • Grandparents;
  • Aunts and uncles; and
  • Cousins.

What Happens if Succession Laws Are Violated?

As previously mentioned, not every state has the same succession laws. For instance, the intestate succession laws in California are very different from the laws in New York. One of the biggest influences in terms of the differences in state’s succession laws is whether that state is a community property state or not. Community property refers to any property that is equally owned by both spouses, and is applicable in states that follow community property law. 

To put it simply, community property is property that is obtained during a marriage, other than separate property. The distribution of property depends on whether a specific state follows community property laws, or other marital property laws. Because of this, succession laws may be violated, whether accidentally or purposefully.

Succession laws may be violated in several ways. Some of these ways include:

  • Attempting to claim property in a manner that does not follow that state’s succession laws;
  • Claiming property that rightfully and lawfully belongs to another relative;
  • Claiming more assets or funds than that specific person is eligible to receive; or
  • Failing to return property that may have been erroneously distributed.

Violations of succession laws may result in criminal charges against the offender, and may be punishable by fines or time spent in jail. Additionally, violations of succession laws often involve many other crimes being committed in order to violate state succession laws. An example of this would be fraud, or falsifying a tax return. As such, a person who violates state succession laws may be found guilty on more than one count. They may receive the punishments associated with those crimes in addition to the punishments associated with succession law violation.

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

What Else Should I Know About Succession Laws and Intestacy?

The best way to avoid any disputes with sucession laws is to have a valid will in place well before becoming ill or incapacitated. A valid will that outlines how you would prefer your property to be distributed upon your death will provide much needed ease and clarity when the time comes. If you die intestate, the state effectively creates a will for you, most likely modeled after the Uniform Probate Code.

Adopted children are treated in the same way as biological children in terms of succession laws. In general, many states remove the adoptee from the families of the genetic parents, and consider the adoptee as part of the family of the adoptive parents. Some other states allow the adopted child to inherit from both sets of parents for inheritance purposes. Still other states allow the adopted child to inherit from both the genetic parents and adoptive parents, but cut off the genetic parents from inheriting from the child.

Lastly, if any of the estate property is not able to be distributed to any of the aforementioned relatives, that property will then be distributed or escheat, back to the state.

Should I Hire an Attorney for Help with Succession Laws?

A skilled and knowledgeable probate attorney may prove to be an invaluable asset. An experienced attorney can help educate you on your state’s succession and intestacy laws, and can assist you in estate planning tasks such as creating a will and helping with property distributions. 

Additionally, if you are involved in a dispute over estate matters, they will represent you in court, as necessary.