Overview of What Happens In California if You Die Without a Will
In the legal world, dying without a will means dying “intestate.” From that point on, the estate becomes a pawn in a legal version of a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book, with more notably rigid choices.
Estates valued at $150,000 or More Are Settled Through Probate Court
Unless the estate (properties, certain savings, and financial accounts, investments, etc.) totals less than $150,000, the estate must proceed through a special court called the probate courts. Probate courts are a specific niche of the legal system, solely dedicated to settling intestate successions as well as cases when wills or trusts are legally contested. While individuals can navigate probate without the help of a legal expert, it is not recommended.
In most cases, remaining family members of the individual who died intestate enlist the help of a probate lawyer to ensure they navigate the process legally, and with the least amount of time and expense. Even so, the average length of time spent to complete the probate process runs from nine-months (very simple estates) to 1-1/2 years or longer.
If you die without a will and you’re legally married…
California divides property and assets into two categories: community and separate.
- Community property is any property, income, savings, etc., held jointly or acquired during the marriage – and before separation or divorce – unless legally stated otherwise.
- Separate property is all property owned before a marriage or acquired after a separation or divorce. Personal inheritances or gifts are also considered separate property, even if you are married when you receive them.
California is a community property state, so all community property belonging to the decedent passes directly to the spouse. Separate property is divided equally between the surviving spouse and legal children – including half-children.
If you have children…
If you are married with children, separate property is divided between your spouse and child(ren) This sounds simple, but consider that your children may be minors when you die, or you may have step-children who you have raised as your own. Thus, the process gets murky quickly without a will or trust in place.
No spouse, no children…
There is a hierarchy of inheritance, running from parents to siblings, to nieces and nephews – all of which are accounted for by California probate law. If there is nobody to act as the administrator of your estate, probate courts have specific legal experts and “people finders” to locate legal heirs and award them their inheritance after the estate’s probate fees, bills, debts, legal fees, and taxes are paid.
What About More Complex Family Structures?
In an era of re-marriage and blended families, you can imagine that dying intestate can cause notable concern for legal and entitled heirs. For many, step-children are loved and cared for just as much as biological children. You may have a niece or nephew who you are as close or closer to your biological children.
There are infinite complexities that tangle up seemingly straightforward California state probate laws, that have nothing to do with your wishes and intentions but are entirely a “black-and-white” matter of legalese and format.
Estate Attorneys Ensure Your Estate is Settled As Per Your Wishes
Completing legally-sound estate plans, will or trust with an experienced attorney is the best way to save your heirs – and those you would like to be your heirs – a tremendous amount of time, energy and money, not to mention heartache.
Are you interested in learning more about intestate succession or how you simplify the probate process after you die? Contact the estate attorneys here at Tseng Law online, or give us a call at 510-835-3090. In most cases, an hour or less is all it takes to secure your estate.