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What happens when someone you love dies without a will?

Many people put off creating a last will or estate plan as long as they can, often until they approach retirement or start worrying about who will care for their children. Unfortunately, many people every year pass away without having any instructions regarding how their possessions and estate should be handled in the event of their death.

For family members, loved ones and others close to the deceased, realizing that there was no last will can be quite frustrating. In the state of California, those who die intestate (without a will) risk possessions and other assets getting distributed in a manner that doesn't reflect their wishes. Their loves ones, especially intimate partners not bound legally by marriage, could end up in a very precarious situation.

California law mandates how assets are handled without a will

The law in California gives due consideration to standard marital relationships. If your spouse dies without leaving a last will, you will certainly receive some of the assets from the estate. How much of it, however, will depend on if your spouse has surviving parents, siblings or children. If the spouse is the sole survivor, he or she will receive the entire estate.

If there are children, the spouse inherits any community property shared with the deceased, as well as a half or a third of the spouse's separate property, with the remainder going to the children. In cases where a deceased spouse had siblings but no surviving parents or descendants, the surviving spouse will split the separate property with the siblings.

In cases where there is no spouse, parents, siblings or children, assets would pass to nieces and nephews first. Barring that, the estate would pass to grandparents, aunts or uncles and then great aunts and uncles, or even the children, parents or siblings of a spouse who passed on previously. In a situation with no legal family members, the entire estate becomes the property of the state of California.

Probate court is very likely in your future

If you had a close relationship with someone who died suddenly without a will, chances are good that you will end up in probate court. In fact, you may have to fight to receive anything at all if you weren't married. Even in situations of prolonged cohabitation and intermingled finances, extended family could claim all the assets of the deceased, even the home you shared.

While you certainly don't want to damage the memory of your loved one by becoming contentious over his or her assets, you need to consider what your loved one would have wanted. If you discover someone you love has died without a will, you should look closely at the situation and prepare yourself for the potential of probate court if the estate has a value of $150,000 or more.

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