The legal term for dying without a valid will is “intestate.” This does not mean that the state will claim the assets: Instead, California law authorizes a probate court judge to oversee their distribution to the recipients listed in the applicable statute.
Dying without an estate plan
Unfortunately, it is not unusual for people to die without a valid will. When this happens, the case is referred to probate court. A judge will appoint an administrator of the estate, someone who functions much the same as an executor of will.
The administrator will do the following:
- Identify assets and debts
- Liquidate assets, if necessary
- Pay any debts owed by the deceased
- Identify heirs in accordance with California state law
- Distribute assets to heirs
As you might imagine, this process is often time consuming, which can mean that the probate of your estate can take a year or more to complete.
Who gets what?
California’s intestate succession law prescribes the distribution of assets according to the closeness of a family member to you: For example, surviving spouses and children have priority when claiming a share of your estate. This line of succession can be complex, particularly if you have a blended family or your heirs consist of extended family, rather than a spouse, child, grandchild, parent or sibling.
Another complicating factor is the fact that California is a community property estate, which means that property is classified as community property, quasi-community property and separate property. The estate administrator will have to determine the status of each of your assets before providing for its distribution.
Because of the complexity of managing the affairs of someone who dies intestate, establishing an estate plan is a wise idea. Doing so can save your heirs time, money and heartache as they try to settle your affairs.