wife looks at photos of deceased husband

Does a Surviving Spouse Eliminate the Need for Probate?

If your spouse has passed away, not only are you experiencing the emotional loss of your loved one, but you may also feel confused and uneasy concerning probate. Is probate still required if the decedent had a surviving spouse? What is a spouse entitled to? 

It all depends on your surviving spouse’s rights. A skilled estate planning attorney can help guide you through the process.

Determining Whether Probate Administration Is Necessary

After losing a loved one, probate is often necessary to successfully close out the decedent’s estate. However, probate is not required for every case. 

Depending on how the property is titled, it may not need to go through probate. Non-probate assets include:

  • Property held in trust
  • Life insurance policy proceeds with designated benefits
  • Pay-on-death (POD) or transfer-on-death (TOD) accounts with designated beneficiaries
  • Jointly owned property with a right of survivorship

Additionally, under California law, if a decedent’s estate is valued at $184,500 or less at the time of their death, it qualifies for a simplified probate process. 

Figuring out whether probate administration is required for a loved one’s estate and handling the process can be stressful and confusing. For support and direction, seek assistance from a qualified estate planning attorney.

Do surviving spouses automatically inherit everything?

When an individual passes away and they have a spouse, it’s common to wonder whether everything automatically goes to their husband or wife. Every case is unique, so it depends. 

If the decedent had an estate plan, their property and assets would go to their designated beneficiaries as follows:

  • Trust property would be transferred to the beneficiaries named in the trust based on the terms
  • Jointly owned assets would automatically go to the surviving joint owner so long as the property was titled with a right of survivorship.
  • Funds from POD and TOD accounts, such as life insurance and bank accounts, would go to designated beneficiaries if beneficiaries were previously named.

These assets may or may not go to a surviving spouse, based on the way the property and assets were titled and whether the decedent chose their spouse as a beneficiary. 

What surviving spouses inherit mainly depends on whether the decedent had an estate plan, including a will and trust, the terms of a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement (if one exists), and whether the property is considered community property. 

What Surviving Spouses Are Entitled to Receive According to California Law

Under California law, spouses are entitled to one-half of the marriage’s community property. Community property includes property and assets acquired during the life of the marriage, regardless of who purchased it or whose name is on the title. Still, a surviving spouse may be entitled to more based on the situation.

Unless a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement exists that states otherwise, a surviving spouse is generally entitled to half of the community property upon their spouse’s passing. If the decedent had an estate plan, their assets would be transferred based on the specifications of the documents, subject to California’s community property rules.

Should the decedent pass away without an estate plan, a probate judge would determine how property and assets are distributed. In this case, the state’s intestacy laws would play a role. 

There are situations in which a surviving spouse would inherit everything. If the decedent passed away with no children, parents, siblings, or other immediate family, the surviving spouse would be entitled to receive all of the decedent’s property and assets. 

If the decedent had family, the surviving spouse would inherit all community property and a portion of the decedent’s separate property. The other heirs would inherit a share of the decedent’s separate property as well. 

Seeking Guidance From an Estate Planning Attorney

Navigating the probate process while grieving the loss of a loved one can be particularly challenging. If you are a surviving spouse in need of legal assistance, do not hesitate to discuss your surviving spouse’s rights with an estate planning attorney at OC Wills and Trusts. 

When it comes to end-of-life matters, speed and efficiency are of the utmost importance. Thankfully, our full-service staff has the support needed to resolve your estate planning affairs in a timely manner, ensuring your family’s interests are protected during challenging times.

We proudly serve clients in Orange County, CA, and the surrounding areas. Contact us today to schedule a consultation. 

Brian Chew, the managing partner of OC Wills & Trust Attorneys, has extensive experience in the areas of estate planning, asset protection planning, business succession planning, long-term care planning, and veterans’ benefits. By devoting his practice to estate planning matters, he has founded a firm that strives to provide exceptional service to their clients by working closely with individuals and their families to create comprehensive and customized estate plans. For the past twenty five years, Brian has served thousands of clients in the matters of estate planning, wills and trusts. If you have any questions about this article, you can reach Brian Chew here.