If a California resident dies without having a will, trust or other legal provision in place that stipulates how to divide their property, then the property is handled in accordance with California law. Does this sound scary? It could. Estate planning is a loving act that saves inheritors and beneficiaries a lot of unnecessary time, resources and frustration.
Estate planning empowers Californians to control what happens with a lifetime of acquisitions. Using a will or trust ensures that assets and minor children are accounted for. Let’s take a look at how property and assets are handled if a person dies without properly planning their estate.
Hierarchy used in property distribution
Intestate succession is the process that the State of California uses to decide who receives property when a person dies without a will or trust. Here is how it works, to varying degrees:
- The first in line to receive a share of the estate is your surviving spouse.
- If there isn’t a spouse, then the next in line are your children, and after that your grandchildren.
- If you have no spouse or direct descendants, then the other descendants of your parents (your siblings and their children) are your legal beneficiaries.
- When none of the above are an option, the next in line are your grandparents and their descendants (such as your aunts and uncles or cousins).
The last and final option, when no rightful beneficiaries can be located, is what is legally called “escheat to the state”. This means that the assets and property in your estate become the legal property of the State of California.
Exactly what each person is eligible to receive depends on the exact circumstances. For example, your spouse may have to share an estate with your surviving adult children or other relatives if you die intestate — even if that isn’t your preference. If you haven’t fully explored your estate planning options, now is a good time to get started.