When you pass away who will inherit your assets/your estate is dependent on a number of factors. One of the most important factors is how your assets are titled. If the asset was in a trust – it will be controlled by the terms of that trust. If the asset was held jointly with another person then it might be subject to the terms of that joint ownership and pass to the co-owner. If the asset had named beneficiaries as many life insurance and retirement accounts do then it will pass to those people.
If you pass away and you have assets just in your name alone, without a will to say otherwise your estate will be subject to the laws of intestate succession.
Under the Probate Code without a will who is entitled to your estate is spelled out in very particular detail. It is referred to as the Law of Intestate Succession. It will depend upon if you were married or not at the time of your death and if you were married it will depend upon the character of the property.
A single person’s estate would pass to the following groups of people in the following order:
- If you had children – it will go to your children in equal shares. If any of your children predeceased you their portion would drop down and be divided equally amongst their surviving children and so on.
- If you were single but had no children then your estate will go to your parents. Even if your parents have divorced one half goes to your mother and one half goes to your father, or the survivor of them.
- If you are not survived by children or parents then your estate would go to your siblings in equal shares.
The general order of succession for a single person is Children; Grandchildren; Parents; Siblings; Nieces and Nephews; Grandparents; Aunts and Uncles; Cousins and so on. At a certain point – but it does take awhile – without any living blood relatives your estate will escheat to the State of California.
If you are married when you die without a will then the first question is what is the character of the property?
Your community property – assets acquired during your marriage and not by gift or inheritance – will pass by intestate succession 100% to your surviving spouse.
If you are married and you have no will and the character of the assets in question is your Separate Property – ie assets you brought to the marriage and kept separate or assets you acquired during your marriage by gift or inheritance will be divided as follows:
If the decedent had 1 child then the asset will go ½ to the surviving spouse and ½ to the surviving child.
If the decedent had more than one child then the asset will pass 1/3 to the surviving spouse and 2/3rds in equal shares to all the decedent’s children. So even if the decedent had 10 children the surviving spouse would receive 1/3 and the 10 kids equally share the remaining 2/3rds.
If the decedent was married and had separate property but never had children or was not survived by children -then the surviving spouse will receive ½ and the other ½ will be distributed as described above – ie to the parents; siblings; nieces and nephews; grandparents; etc.
This is why it is so important to make sure that you have created a comprehensive estate plan. Even just having a will to document WHO you want to inherit from you is an important minimum step. If you die intestate it will not matter what you told your family, friends and loved ones about who you wanted to leave your estate to. The law is the law and the only way to have your estate distributed to who you want and how you want is to create at minimum a will based estate plan and for reasons clarified in other notes more likely in a trust based estate plan.