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What Happens to My Stuff if I Die Without a Will or Trust?

This is called dying “intestate”.

California laws on intestacy determine how a deceased person’s estate is distributed when they die without a valid will or trust. When a person dies intestate, the court follows a set of rules to distribute the assets to the closest surviving relatives. The specific distribution depends on the relationships of the decedent’s surviving family members. A general overview follows. Keep in mind that laws can change, and it is always advisable to consult with an attorney for the most up-to-date information.

Spouse’s Share:

  • If the decedent had a surviving spouse but no surviving children, parents, or siblings, the entire estate goes to the spouse.
  • If the decedent had a surviving spouse and surviving children, the spouse inherits all the community property and a portion of the separate property.
  • If the decedent’s surviving children are also children of the surviving spouse, the spouse inherits all the community property and one-half or one-third of the separate property.
  • If the decedent’s surviving children are from another relationship, the spouse inherits all the community property and one-third of the separate property. The remaining two-thirds pass to the decedent’s children.
  • If the decedent had a surviving registered domestic partner, the laws regarding a surviving spouse generally apply to the domestic partner.

Children’s Share:

  • If the decedent has surviving children but no surviving spouse, the children inherit the entire estate equally.

Parents’ Share:

  • If the decedent has no surviving spouse or children, the parents inherit the entire estate equally.
  • If only one parent is alive, the surviving parent inherits the entire estate.

Siblings’ Share:

  • If the decedent has no surviving spouse, children, or parents, but has surviving siblings, the siblings inherit the entire estate equally.
  • If only one sibling is alive, that sibling inherits the entire estate.

More Distant Relatives:

  • If there are no surviving close relatives (spouse, children, parents, or siblings), the court will continue down a line of more distant relatives, such as grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc., until a living relative is found to inherit the estate.

It’s important to note that intestacy laws can become more complex when dealing with blended families, half-siblings, and other unique family structures. Additionally, assets with designated beneficiaries, such as life insurance policies or retirement accounts, typically pass directly to the named beneficiaries outside of probate.

To obtain accurate and up-to-date information regarding intestate succession and probate cases, it is strongly recommended to consult with an experienced attorney specializing in estate planning or probate law in California.

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