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What happens if you die 'intestate' in California?

If you live in California and don't have an estate plan -- even a simple will -- in place when you die, the state will determine how your assets are distributed. This is done based on California's "intestate succession" laws.

These laws determine which relatives will receive your assets and how much of them each person will get. Succession laws are based on how closely the heirs were related to the deceased person.

The assumption is that the deceased would want close relatives to have the bulk of the inheritance. However, your biological and familial connection may or may not coincide with how close you actually are, how you feel about your family members or whether they need or can responsibly handle the money or property.

California's intestate succession laws are impacted by the fact that California is a community property state. Therefore, if you leave a spouse behind, he or she will get all of your community property. This property includes most of the assets acquired or earned during the marriage. Unless you and your spouse were divorced or had a legal separation or other property settlement agreement in place, that person will receive all of the marital property -- even if you'd been estranged for many years.

The distribution of separate property is done differently. For married people, separate property may include things like inheritances and gifts that one person received before or during the marriage. The surviving spouse will still get a portion of that. How much depends on how many surviving children you have, because your spouse has to share it with them under the law.

Next in order of inheritance are grandchildren, parents, siblings and nephews/nieces. When single Californians with no children die intestate, preference in distribution is also given to those relatives in that order.

The court isn't going to be interested in how you actually felt about any of these people or whether you intended for them to receive your property or money. Therefore, if you want control over what happens to everything that you worked for and that means something to you, it's essential to have an estate plan in place. This can also help prevent family squabbles and court battles. An estate plan doesn't have to be complicated. It just needs to be properly prepared. An experienced California estate planning attorney can help you develop a plan that meets your needs.

Source: The Pasadena/San Gabriel Valley Journal, "“California’s Plan for Distribution of Your Property”," Marlene S. Cooper, April 04, 2018

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