According to the American Bar Association, 55% of Americans die without any estate planning or named beneficiaries in a will. Some of the deceased never bother to create a will or engage in estate planning, while others create a document or directive that will be found invalid after they die. In these cases, their assets are distributed to heirs identified and prioritized by the probate court in the decedent’s state of residence.
The hierarchy of beneficiaries is dictated by intestate succession.
When a person dies without a valid will, their estate is passed on to heirs through the rules of intestacy as outlined in the state’s probate law. Each state has their own probate and intestate succession laws which dictate the order and succession of heirs. For example, California’s intestate guidelines (outlined in California Probate Code 6400-6455 ) state the following for a decedent without a valid will or trust:
- If married and no children, all assets go to the spouse.
- If not married, but has children, then all assets are divided among children.
- If not married, but has children and one child is deceased, the children of the predeceased child will inherit an equal share of the assets.
- If married with one child, the assets are split equally between the surviving spouse and child.
- If married with multiple children, assets are split 1/3 to the spouse and the remaining is split 2/3 equally between the children.
- If not married and no children, the hierarchy for distributing assets considers parents first, then siblings, then cousins.
- If there are no heirs or kin, all assets escheat to the state.
Who gets nothing in intestate succession?
Common-law spouses, non-blood relatives, close friends, and favorite charities will receive nothing. Non-traditional family systems and other relationships are unaccounted for. Without a valid will or trust to dictate the deceased’s intentions, the intestate guidelines cannot be contested or disputed. This reality highlights the need for anyone with assets and end-of-life wishes to work with an attorney, ensuring their hopes become reality.
Are some assets exempt from being distributed by the state’s guidelines?
Yes, certain assets including property held in a living trust, life insurance proceeds, payable-on-death bank accounts, and any property held in joint tenancy with right of survivorship are all items that most states do not pass through intestate succession. Again, differences between states highlight the need to work with an attorney familiar with the nuances of the law specific to the decedent’s state of residence.
The grieving process is already difficult in countless ways.
Ambiguity about beneficiaries can create a ripe environment for family conflicts and hard feelings. Whether you are working to pick up the pieces after a relative’s death or hoping to protect loved ones when your own time comes, the Law Offices of Jeffrey Lohman can help. Our professional staff will assist you in making informed decisions to attain the security you deserve in an otherwise uncertain time. Ensure you and your loved ones are protected; contact our offices today to discuss your estate planning needs.