Experience. Trust. Lasting Results. Let's Get Started
Couples preparing estate plan by consulting attorney

What Happens if You Die Without a Will in California?

Bochnewich Law Offices July 3, 2024

While dying without a will is not ideal, it doesn’t make it any less common. Unfortunately, a large percentage of people put off writing a will. And for many of them, the day when they finally draft their last will and testament never comes. But what happens if someone dies without a will in California? Who will inherit the deceased’s property?  

When it happens, the distribution of assets will be dictated by the state’s intestate succession laws to pass assets to your legal and blood relatives. “So why do I need a will then if my assets will be distributed to my family anyway?” you might wonder.

The answer is simple: with a will, you have complete control over what happens to your assets after you die and who should inherit what. Intestate succession, on the other hand, merely provides a default scheme for the distribution of your assets.  

At Bochnewich Law Offices, we know how hard it is on the family when their loved one dies without a will. With decades of experience as probate and estate planning attorneys, we have seen firsthand the negative repercussions that can happen from not creating a will in your lifetime. That’s why we help clients through each step of creating a will to ensure both peace of mind and comfort for them and their loved ones.  

What Is Probate and How It Works 

Probate is a court-supervised process that ensures a deceased person's assets are distributed according to the law. When someone dies without a will, this process becomes even more critical. The court will appoint an administrator to manage the deceased's estate, ensuring all debts are paid, and assets are distributed to rightful heirs. 

The probate process can be complicated, lengthy, and expensive. It starts with filing a petition in the county where the deceased resided. After the court appoints an administrator, they must take an inventory of the deceased's assets. This can include real estate, bank accounts, and personal belongings, among other assets. The administrator is also responsible for notifying creditors and paying any outstanding debts. If the estate cannot settle the debts, the deceased’s heirs may be responsible for their loved one’s debts.  

Once all debts are settled, the remaining assets are distributed to the heirs according to California's intestate succession laws. However, this process can take several months or even years to complete, depending on the complexity of the estate. Some of the easiest ways to avoid probate include establishing joint ownership, creating a revocable trust, and naming specific beneficiaries.  

What Is Intestate Succession?

Intestate succession refers to the legal framework used to distribute a deceased person's assets when they die without a will. In California, these laws are designed to ensure that the deceased's closest relatives inherit their property. However, the rules are quite specific and can lead to outcomes that may not align with what the deceased would have wanted. 

Under California law, the assets are first divided between the surviving spouse and children. If there is no spouse or children, the assets will then go to the deceased's parents, siblings, and other close relatives. This hierarchy aims to keep the assets within the family, but it can become complicated if there are multiple potential heirs. 

One significant drawback of intestate succession is the lack of control over who inherits your assets. For example, if you have a close friend or a charitable organization you want to benefit from your estate, they will not receive anything unless specified in a will. 

Who Will Become the Administrator of the Estate?

When someone dies without a will, the court appoints an administrator to manage the estate. This role is similar to that of an executor named in a will, but the administrator is chosen by the court based on a specific order of preference. 

The court usually prefers to appoint a close family member as the administrator. This could be the surviving spouse, an adult child, or a parent. If no close family members are available or willing to serve, the court may appoint a more distant relative or even a professional fiduciary. 

The administrator has several responsibilities, including taking inventory of the deceased's assets, paying off their debts, and then distributing the remaining assets to the rightful heirs. This role requires a significant amount of time and effort, which is why it's essential to have a clear will in place to avoid placing this burden on your loved ones.  

While you could write your own will without an attorney, one of the things you need to know about preparing this document is that it must follow statutory requirements in your area to be valid. According to the official website of the Judicial Branch of California, a will is valid if it’s signed in front of two adult witnesses. That’s one of the requirements of creating a will.  

What Happens if the Deceased Was Married at the Time of Death

The distribution of assets is more straightforward if the deceased was married at the time of death. California follows community property laws, meaning that assets acquired during the marriage are considered jointly owned by both spouses. 

In the absence of a will, the surviving spouse typically inherits all community property. However, the distribution of separate property, which includes assets acquired before marriage or through inheritance, follows a different set of rules. The surviving spouse may inherit a portion of the separate property, but the rest will be distributed to the deceased's children or other close relatives. 

This process can become complicated if there are children from a previous marriage. In such cases, the court must balance the interests of the surviving spouse and the children, which can lead to disputes and delays in the distribution of assets, something that can be prevented with a will.  

What Happens if the Deceased Was Unmarried at the Time of Death

The distribution process can become even more complicated if the deceased was not married at the time of death. In such cases, the assets are distributed according to California's intestate succession laws, but without the straightforward division between a surviving spouse and other heirs. 

The deceased's children will be the first in line to inherit the assets. If there are no children, the assets will go to the deceased's parents. If the parents are also deceased, the assets will be distributed to the deceased's siblings or other close relatives. 

This process can lead to complications, especially if there are multiple potential heirs. Disputes may arise over the distribution of assets, leading to delays and additional legal costs. All of these unpleasant things are avoidable if you have a well-crafted will in place. With this document you can specify exactly how you want your assets to be distributed. This ensures that wrong people won’t inherit from you and that your loved ones don’t receive the wrong proportions of your assets. While having a will in place is critical, it is equally important to regularly review and update your will to make sure the document remains relevant.  

Don’t Procrastinate – Start Working On Your Will Today

Life is full of uncertainties, and while most of us prefer not to think about our mortality, it's essential to consider what might happen to our assets if we die without a will. The additional burdens your loved ones will face if you leave this world without a will can compound their suffering after your death. If you truly love your family, you will want to do whatever you can to ease their suffering as much as possible. One way to do this is to start working on your will today.

And we can help. Our firm serves all of Southern California, including Los Angeles County, Riverside County, San Diego County, and surrounding areas. Reach out today to schedule an appointment with our attorneys.