When a Person Dies without a Will in California: How the Assets are Distributed and to Whom

If you want your property to go to certain individuals or groups after your death, (relatives, friends, charitable organizations), it is very important to make a Will. Without a Will, you are said to have died intestate and your assets will be passed by way of intestate succession. This means that your state gets to decide who gets your T.V., your car, your Apple stock, and anything else you may own.

Intestate succession laws vary from state to state. Below are those for California. Who your assets go to, however, will depend, in part, on whether or not you have a surviving spouse, no matter what state you live in.

California—Intestate Succession

Unmarried Decedent

If the decedent was not married, the estate is distributed as follows:

  • To the decedent’s children, who take equal shares if they are in the same generation.
  • If there are no children or other issue (legal term for children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, etc.) living, the estate goes to the decedent’s parents.
  • If there are no living parents, the estate is distributed to the issue of the parents (who are the brothers and sisters of the decedent).
  • If there are no brothers or sisters, the decedent’s grandparents will inherit the estate.
  • If there are no living grandparents, the issue of the grandparents will inherit the estate (who are the uncles and aunts, and if there aren’t any, then their issue—the cousins).
  • If there are no cousins, the estate is distributed to next of kin in equal degree meaning more distant cousins.
  • If there is no taker under any of the above provisions, the intestate estate passes to the state of California.

Married Decedent

If the decedent was married, did the decedent own community property, separate property, or a combination of the two? Community property generally includes all assets acquired by spouses from earnings during marriage while living in California. Separate property refers to assets acquired before marriage or through inheritances or gifts to only one spouse.

The decedent’s community property goes to the surviving spouse. The decedent’s separate property is distributed as follows:

  1. The surviving spouse receives all of the separate property if the decedent is not survived by issue , parents, brothers, sisters, or children of a deceased brother or sister.
  2. The surviving spouse receives one-half of the separate property if the decedent left only one child, or issue of a deceased child.
  3. The surviving spouse receives one-half of the separate property if the decedent had no surviving issue, but left parent(s) or their issue (brothers or sisters of decedent). The other half goes to the parents or their issue.
  4. The surviving spouse receives one third of the separate property if the decedent left more than one child. The other two-thirds is divided among the children.
  5. The surviving spouse receives one-third of the separate property if the decedent left one child and the issue of one or more deceased children. The other two-thirds goes to the one child and to the issue of the deceased children.
  6. The surviving spouse receives one-third of the separate property if the decedent left the issue of two or more deceased children. The other two- thirds goes to the issue of the two or more deceased children.
  7. If there is no taker under any of the above provisions, the intestate estate passes to the state of California.
  8. If there is no taker under any of the above provisions, the intestate estate passes to the state of California.

Okay, that was pretty complicated. Every state has its own scheme for the distribution of intestate estates. You can see how convoluted it can get. This can only be avoided by creating a Will so that your property goes to whom you want, not whom the state decides should get it.

Visit another FreeAdvice article for a step-by-step guide to the probate process.