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How do community property laws impact inheritances?

People often think that California's community property laws are only relevant when couples divorce. However, they also apply to how property is disbursed and how debts are handled after someone's death.

Under our community property laws, everything that spouses earn or receive (with the exception of gifts and inheritances received by one partner) during the marriage is considered joint (and therefore community) property. That means each spouse owns half of it. Likewise, each spouse is also responsible for half of all debt accumulated during the marriage.

Some individual property can become community property if it's commingled with joint property. An example would be if a spouse receives an inheritance from a sibling and deposits it in an account that they have with their husband or wife.

Another term that may be relevant when a spouse dies is "quasi-community property." If a couple purchased a home in another state (whether a community property state or not) during their marriage, it's considered community property.

These community property laws come into play when a person dies without a will (intestate). If that person has no surviving children, grandchildren, parents or siblings, their spouse is entitled to inherit the deceased person's share of their community property. They're also entitled to their spouse's separate property -- the property they brought into the marriage. If a person with children or grandchildren dies intestate, the spouse is required by law to share the inheritance with those family members.

If a married person in California makes a will, they have to do so in accordance with the state's community property laws. You can leave your share of your community property to someone other than your spouse. However, they're entitled by law to their half of it.

It should be noted that domestic partnerships are subject to the same community property laws as marriages. However, common law marriages aren't. It would be up to a court to determine what a person who claimed to be in a common law marriage would be able to inherit from their deceased partner.

California probate laws are unique and complicated -- not unlike many of our other laws. Whether you're dealing with the death of a spouse or you're considering putting an estate plan in place, it's essential to seek the help of an experienced estate planning attorney.

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