15 May California’s Intestacy Laws
Intestacy is the name given to the situation when someone dies who hasn’t made a will. This can happen quite easily, because when you are young, you don’t always think about dying. Wills tend to get pushed back in order of priority. This attitude can continue until an unfortunate death does happen and then there is a problem with deciding who is entitled to what when it comes to distributing any property belonging to the deceased.
Every state in the U.S. has intestacy laws. Most states have very similar laws, but if a person dies without a will, the laws of the state in which that person was resident come into effect. The laws clarify who are the beneficiaries of the deceased’s estate, although they are not always clear enough to eliminate all doubts and disputes between potential beneficiaries.
It does solve a lot of problems for your spouse, and any of your relatives or descendants if you make a will or living trust when you are alive and healthy rather than leave it to your loved ones to sort out after an untimely death.
California’s intestacy laws are not particularly simple to understand as they depend on recognizing the degree of relatedness between the deceased and any potential beneficiary.
What is personal and community property?
The first decision that must be made is whether the property owned by the deceased was jointly owned with someone else (usually the spouse or partner) or owned personally. By property, this means real estate as well as any other assets that have monetary value, such as shares and bank accounts.
Personal property is that property that is owned only in the name of the deceased, while community property is jointly owned property. Personal property also includes any property that the deceased inherited or brought previously into the marriage.
Personal and community property owned by the deceased are treated differently, so it is important that the deceased’s estate is differentiated into either one or the other before working out what any beneficiary is entitled to.
Identifying the spouse and domestic partner for inheritance purposes
In California, there are two legally valid relationships between the two people who consider themselves a couple. A couple can either be legally married or have a “domestic partnership”. A domestic partnership is also what is called a “civil union” in some other states. It allows same sex couples to have a legal relationship as long as they register their partnership. It also allows opposite sex couples who are not legally married to have a legal relationship as long at least one of them is over 62. In the discussion below, the term “partner” refers to someone in a domestic partnership.
Note that cohabiting couples, i.e. those who are in a so called “common law” marriage have no legal status as far as inheritance is concerned. Unless there is a will, for example, a surviving partner who is not married or in a domestic partnership will have no legal right to claim property belonging to their partner.
As far as inheritance is concerned, if a spouse is legally separated or divorced, then he or she is not entitled to claim any property belonging to the deceased.
Laws when the deceased has a spouse or partner and other close relatives
The spouse or partner will inherit all property that is classified as “community property,” but only half or a third of any personal property. The other half or third will go to the children, siblings or parents.
If the deceased dies with no spouse or partner, but with children, siblings or parents still alive, the property will be divided between them.
If the deceased has no spouse or partner and no other close relatives, such as children, siblings or parents, then the property will be divided between any other relatives. This might include cousins, nieces and nephews, aunts and uncles or grandparents.
If in the more unlikely situation in which there are no surviving relatives at all, then the property is given to the state of California.
How an attorney can help
As can be seen, the laws are quite complex and it is best to leave the details to a properly qualified and experienced attorney like one at the Law Offices of Damian M. Nolan in Long Beach, Lakewood & Los Angeles. Contact one of our attorneys by phone at 562-634-1115.