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Intestate succession Pt. 1: What is intestate?

When the famous artist Prince passed away in 2016, people everywhere mourned the loss of a great talent and celebrated his achievements and monumental music. Then, word quickly got out that he never made a will.

Passing away without a will can cause a significant amount of stress for surviving loved ones. For example, there are several issues over Prince's estate that have yet to be resolved years after his death. Even if individuals do not have nearly as many assets as Prince did when he passed away, dying intestate can still lead to complex issues during probate.

A closer look at intestate succession

The legal term for dying without making a will is "intestate."

One of the most common myths about intestate succession is the state will take an individual's property and distribute it how they like. This is not true.

Dying intestate only means that an individual's wishes are not taken into account. Instead, the probate court will follow California's intestate succession laws to distribute the property. 

How do intestate succession laws distribute property?

California's intestate succession laws essentially create an estate plan for an individual. These laws determine that:

  • A surviving spouse will inherit all of the community property and a portion of the individual's separate property
  • Other close relatives can still inherit assets after the spouse, such as children, grandchildren or parents
  • The court may appoint a close relative the responsibility of being the estate administrator, usually the surviving spouse or children
  • Assets with specific beneficiaries, such as a trust or an IRA, will often go to those listed

Generally, the probate courts strive to distribute property as fairly as possible in intestate succession. 

But intestate succession can involve significant issues

However, as we discussed in a recent blog post, intestate succession can leave families facing complicated legal challenges in probate court. For example:

  • There is an increased chance of conflicts or disputes between family members regarding the estate administration
  • Beneficiaries might not inherit specific assets their loved one verbally promised to them, causing more conflicts between heirs
  • Blended families face particular issues since the law might recognize an ex-spouse before adopted children, for example

Intestate succession laws might try to be fair to the surviving family members, but the lack of a will can put a lot of strain on a family after the loss of a loved one. However, it is possible to navigate complex intestate succession issues while protecting the memory of a loved one, which we will discuss in the next post.

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