hands of professional man holding pen over documents

What Happens if Someone Dies Without a Will? Understanding California Intestacy Law

Having a will is not a legal requirement. For this reason, many people never take the time to create an estate plan, and they die without a will or any legal instruments in place. 

When someone dies without a will, California intestacy law helps dictate who inherits what and how property and assets are distributed. However, having a proper estate plan can safeguard your legacy and protect your family’s future.

What is intestate succession?

When a person dies without a will, they are said to die “intestate.” If a decedent dies intestate, you must refer to California intestacy law to determine what happens with a person’s estate and how their property and assets are divided among their heirs. 

Additionally, intestate succession is required if the decedent does have a will but the court deems it invalid. 

What assets pass through intestate succession, and which do not?

Typically, intestate succession only focuses on property that would have passed through a will if the decedent had had one. This usually includes property the decedent had in their name alone. There are several ways to protect property from probate, but it does require prior planning.

Certain assets do not pass through intestate succession, including:

  • Pay on death (POD) and transfer on death (TOD) accounts, including life insurance proceeds and bank accounts
  • Property and assets in trust
  • Property owned with another person under joint tenancy with a right of survivorship

These assets transfer to the beneficiary or co-owner upon the decedent’s death without going through any additional steps. 

Intestacy Often Means Probate

Probate is the court-supervised process initiated after a person’s death. It allows for the distribution of assets, payment of outstanding debts and taxes, and other necessary steps.

When an individual dies intestate, their family must file to open a probate case. Through the probate process, decisions are made using California intestacy law to handle all estate-related tasks and close out the decedent’s estate.

Who gets appointed as estate administrator?

When you draft a will, you choose who becomes your estate’s administrator. This person is in charge of handling probate and overseeing all estate tasks to close out your estate.

If a person dies without a will, the court must appoint an administrator. The administrator is typically a family member or close relative, including a spouse, child, or parent. 

Who inherits assets through intestate succession?

Under California intestacy law, several parties can inherit from a decedent’s estate, including:

  • The surviving spouse
  • Children
  • Parents
  • Siblings
  • Grandchildren

Other relatives may also inherit, including aunts, uncles, and cousins, depending on the decedent’s family structure. 

Determining What a Surviving Spouse Receives Under California Intestate Laws

It’s entirely possible for a spouse to receive everything. However, that’s not always the case. 

If the decedent had a surviving spouse, it’s crucial to distinguish community property from separate property. Community property is property acquired during the marriage, of which the spouse is entitled to half. While separate property belonged to the decedent alone, the spouse would also have some claim.

Do children inherit from an intestate parent’s estate? 

If the decedent was unmarried at the time of their death, the children would receive all of their parent’s property. If they were married, the share each child gets depends on the number of children.

Preventing Intestacy With the Help of an Estate Planning Attorney

The intestacy laws in California are extensive. If your loved one dies without a will, an experienced attorney can help you understand these laws and how they impact your situation. 

Planning for the future is highly recommended to avoid the challenges of intestacy. When you’re ready to create a comprehensive estate plan, contact an Orange County estate planning attorney at OC Wills and Trusts 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.