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What happens when a Californian dies without a will?

Every day in California and around the country, people die without a will. Some of these deaths are through accidents and therefore unexpected. Others involve older people who never got around to putting an estate plan in place because they didn't want to contemplate death or just didn't think that they had enough assets to worry about.

However, regardless of the value of a person's assets, there are state laws under the California Probate Code that must be followed when a person dies without a will. This is known as dying "intestate." Therefore, surviving family members will have to deal with these intestacy laws in probate court.

Here are a few important things to know:

-- When people die intestate in California, the assets are divided among the spouse, children, grandchildren and other descendants, parents and siblings.

-- If the person had no living parents, children or siblings, but was married, the spouse gets the entire probate estate.

-- If the person who died had descendants but no living spouse, those descendants get the entire estate.

-- If the person had a spouse and children, the spouse gets half of the estate and a third of the decedent's separate property. The children will get a portion of the separate property as well.

If there is a surviving spouse and parents and/or siblings but no descendants, those other family members will get a share of the separate property.

-- If there are no descendants, parents, siblings or spouse, other family members will divide up the estate.

Of course, in some cases, family members don't actually inherit anything because the decedent's debts were greater than his or her assets. Further, the costs of dealing with an estate in probate need to be paid. Therefore, those will cut into any assets left by a decedent.

People who don't have a lot of assets don't generally need an elaborate estate plan. A simple will can help ensure that what assets they have are distributed as they choose. Further, it can save loved ones time and money during at a difficult time in their lives. If a family member died without a will, an experienced California estate planning attorney can provide valuable advice for handling the probate estate and dealing with probate court.

Source: The Balance, "Dying Without a Will in California," Julie Garber, accessed Dec. 29, 2016

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