If a California resident dies without a will, there are laws in place that determine who inherits their property. These individuals are known as “heirs-at-law.” Identifying heirs-at-law is also important in determining who can challenge a will or another aspect of an estate plan. While each individual state determines who is included in the “heirs-at-law” designation, this is largely similar around the country.
In California, heirs-at-law are spouses and children. Because California is a community property state, the laws do differ a little bit from other states. If a person dies without making an estate plan or if there is property that is not included in the estate plan, the spouse would receive all of the shared property. If there is any remaining separate property, this would be divided between the spouse and the children. If there are no children, all of the property would go to the spouse. In some cases, one necessary element of estate administration might be attempting to locate heirs-at-law or beneficiaries.
With the exception of property going to the surviving spouse, the tendency in estate succession is for the next generation to receive property rather than for it to move laterally. This means that if an individual’s children are deceased, property would pass to their grandchildren rather than to their siblings or parents. These types of individuals are not heirs-at-law; they are called “collateral heirs.”
With the exception of spouses, heirs-at-law are also the people who can challenge a will. The best safeguard against a situation in which the state must determine how assets are distributed or in which an estate plan faces legal challenges is to carefully prepare an estate plan that is clear in its intentions. In addition, communicating with loved ones about the estate plan can help resolve any ambiguity or conflict ahead of time.