If you don’t have a will when you die, your property will still go to your family, through your state’s laws of “intestate succession.” The only difference is that with a will, you can determine exactly which relatives will receive what. Whereas, without a will, the closest relatives will receive equal shares depending on a pre-determined priority system. With that system, how your property is distributed depends on which of your relatives are still alive when you die.
Intestate Succession in California.
The simplest answer to the question, “what will happen to my property if I die without a will,” is that your property will go to your closest living relative(s). Not all assets pass to your heirs through intestate succession, however. Generally, only assets that you own alone in your own name will pass through. Property, for which you are not the sole owner, will pass to the surviving co-owner or beneficiary you named. This is true whether or not you have a will.
If only your spouse survives you, he or she will inherit everything. If you have children when you die, but no spouse, parents or siblings, then your children will inherit your estate. Next in line would be your parents and then your siblings. Your spouse is not entitled to a share of your property if you are legally separated, but not yet divorced. In California, the rules for married couples also apply to registered domestic partners.
There are special circumstances that warrant mentioning. Posthumous children, those you conceived, but were not born before your death) will inherit, just as children who have already been born. Children born outside of marriage can only inherit if it is proven that you acknowledged them as your children and contributed to their support. The size of each child’s share depends on how many children you have.
If you have no surviving relatives of any kind, your estate would then go to the county where you resided at your death. The laws of intestate succession were designed specifically to ensure your property is given to your relatives, regardless of how remotes.
A few special rules.
California enforces a “survivorship period.” This means that, in order to inherit under the laws of intestate succession in California, that individual must have outlived you by 120 hours. There is no distinction between so-called “half” siblings and “whole” siblings. Also, immigration or citizenship status does not affect the ability for a relative to inherit. Finally, any relative who “feloniously and intentionally” kills cannot receive a share of your property. This is known as the “slayer rule.”
If you have any questions about inheritance, intestate succession laws or drafting a will, contact the Schomer Law Group.