If your loved one dies without a will, it can be overwhelming to figure out what to do next. In the state of California, when a person dies without a will, it is called dying intestate. California laws of intestate succession are then used to determine how your loved one’s estate is distributed. California’s intestate succession laws are covered in Sections 6400 through 6414 of the California Probate Code.

So, where do you begin? The first step is to search your loved one’s home, safety deposit box, and storage facilities to determine whether a will exists. You may also need to look for information concerning life insurance policies, payable on death bank accounts, and retirement accounts. If you don’t have access to all of those locations, contact a probate attorney for further instructions. While you may feel uncomfortable rummaging through a deceased loved one’s things, it is essential that it is done in a timely manner. You must be able to represent to the probate court that a thorough search was conducted and that neither a living trust nor a will were located.

The next step is to retain an experienced probate attorney to assist you. Although your loved one did not leave a will, California law provides a “will” to distribute the assets. Below are a few examples of how assets are distributed under the rules of California’s intestate succession:

  • Spouse dies, you are the only surviving family member. If your spouse dies without a will, you will likely receive all of the marital property or property which you and your spouse accumulated during the course of your marriage under joint tenancy. If your spouse owned separate property (property acquired by inheritance or prior to the marriage) and there are no other surviving relatives, you will likely be awarded the separate property as well, but you may need to file a spousal property petition.
  • Spouse dies, with surviving children or parents. If your spouse dies without a will and leaves a surviving child or parent, then you will receive the marital property and potentially up to half of your spouse’s separate property, with the rest distributed among your spouse’s surviving relatives. If your spouse dies intestate, leaving more than one child, then your share of your spouse’s separate property reduces according to how many surviving relatives have a claim to the property.
  • Your last surviving parent dies. If your last parent dies without a will, his or her property will be divided among his or her living descendants, such as children and grandchildren, according to the rules of intestate succession. For example:
    * All members of their nearest generation of descendants (their children) that contains at least one living member are entitled to an equal share of the remaining property (excluding any descendants that died with no descendants of their own).
    * If any of their children predeceased them (leaving their own children), their living children will each receive an equal distribution from that child’s share.
  • Relative dies, decedent was not married. If a family member dies who was not married at the time of death and has no surviving children, then the property will be divided among surviving parents and siblings. If there is no living parent or sibling, the estate divides among the next surviving generation, such as nieces and nephews. If no living relative can be found, the estate goes to the state.

Sound complicated? It can be, especially if you have unique circumstances or if it is a large estate, but you do not have to navigate the probate process alone. If you need assistance understanding California probate and estate law, contact us today at (714) 963-7543.