It’s About Relationships

What Happens When You Die Without A Will In California

On Behalf of | May 25, 2023 | Probate |

Distributing a deceased person’s estate can become a complex process, especially when the deceased left no will. In California, the courts refer to this scenario as an “intestate” estate, with specific rules guiding the process.

Having a clear understanding of what to do in these scenarios can make navigating these issues easier.

Probate and intestate succession

In California, an estate typically enters probate when a person dies without a trust (NOTE: If a person has a will, but no trust, then probate is still necessary. Wills to not avoid probate.). Without a will, California’s intestate succession laws govern the distribution of these assets. California designed its intestate succession laws to distribute the assets of the deceased in a manner that, generically, most people would likely prefer. These laws identify and allocate the assets to the closest relatives of the deceased, based on particular priorities. For instance, the surviving spouse and children generally take top priority, with parents of the deceased next in line, if the deceased had no surviving spouse or children/grandchildren.

The function of the probate court

The probate court takes on a crucial role in managing an intestate estate. The court appoints an administrator, also known as a personal representative, to handle the affairs of the estate. The duties of the administrator include gathering the assets of the deceased, settling debts and taxes and distributing the remaining assets following the state’s intestate succession laws.

Creating a trust serves as the most effective way to avoid the uncertainties of intestate succession and also to avoid court intervention. By clearly stating how to distribute assets, a will or trust can ensure peace of mind and potentially prevent conflicts among surviving family members; the difference being that a properly funded trust can also avoid the need for probate court intervention. However, if a loved one dies without a will, it becomes crucial to understand California’s probate and intestate succession laws.

Proper succession can become complicated

The rules of intestate succession are not always straightforward. For example, if the decedent had a spouse who predeceased within a certain time period, the people entitled to the portion of the estate that would have belonged to the predeceased spouse could be certain more distant relatives of the predeceased spouse. This can become especially complex in cases where the couple had no children and lived a long life. You can end up in a situation where dozens of people with distant relations (like “first cousin once removed”) are entitled to various percentages of the estate. A personal representative not only has to follow the rules of intestate succession, but also make a bona fide effort to look for all heirs who are entitled to estate assets. In many cases, this involved hiring a private investigator to find the people.

Because the personal representative has a responsibility to find heirs and because these heirs have a right to notice of the probate and of the property to which they are entitled, it is crucial to get experienced professional help in ensuring that an intestate estate is properly administered.