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Since June 2023, there have been more than 100 escheated estates in Arizona. Escheated assets refer to property transferred to the Department of Revenue’s Unclaimed Property Unit. This happens when an estate has no identifiable heirs or devisees or these parties cannot be located. Because of the rise in unclaimed estates, it is very important to understand the details of Arizona's inheritance laws. This is especially true for people who stand to inherit property and those in charge of processing estates.

A notable probate case in Grand Canyon State is Dougherty v. Hoyer (In re Dougherty), which revolved around a contested will and the distribution of a large estate. The case highlighted various facets of inheritance rules, including the importance of meeting the legal requirements for a valid will, the process of contesting a will, and the court’s responsibility to ensure fair distribution of assets among heirs.

In this article, you will learn about the important aspects of inheritance succession law in Arizona, including what happens when a person dies, with or without a will. Whether you are a citizen of Arizona dealing with probate issues or are simply curious about the state’s inheritance statutes, this article serves as an informative and accessible guide, helping you better understand this complicated area of law.

What Happens if Someone Dies With a Will in Arizona?

In Arizona, the following takes place when an individual passes away with a valid will:

  1. The probate process is initiated by submitting a request to the Probate Court.

  2. Post appointment, the executor notifies all relevant parties.

  3. The executor consolidates the deceased’s assets, reconciles debts with creditors, and compiles a detailed inventory and financial summary of the estate.

These steps must be in line with the relevant statutes and judicial regulations, encompassing precise timelines. After satisfying all legal prerequisites, the estate’s holdings are allocated to the legitimate beneficiaries, culminating in the case’s resolution.

An Arizona will is a legal document for distributing assets after death, including personal, fiduciary, digital, and real property. It enables the testator (the individual who creates the will) to allocate their property to families, friends, and charities according to their wishes.

Probate validates a will, ensuring the decedent’s wishes are honored. A judge may approve wills with an affidavit from the decedent, a notary, and a witness. Probate is not always necessary, depending on the circumstances. Jointly owned property transfers automatically to the co-owner upon death. However, without probate, an executor cannot transfer property titles or cash assets to heirs if the assets are not jointly owned.

A person’s chosen representative, known as an executor, plays a pivotal role in executing their final wishes regarding asset distribution. It is ideal to appoint someone detached from any financial gains from the estate and who also possesses a decent understanding of the individual and their kin. This executor must faithfully implement the will’s directives and ensure the rightful allocation of the person’s assets. 

Moreover, opting for a living trust offers enhanced security for one’s legacy. It safeguards possessions from debt collectors, opportunistic entities, and the impacts of divorce. It also streamlines the probate process for family members.

Requirements for a Valid Will in Arizona

A will is considered valid in Arizona if it meets certain criteria. The requirements for a valid will include:

  • The presence of at least two witnesses during the signing of the will.

  • The two witnesses’ signatures in the document.

It is advisable to ask a professional to draft the will to ensure compliance with Arizona law. Meeting these prerequisites allows the decedent to have full control over the distribution of their assets.

Contesting a Will in Arizona

In Arizona, a state that adheres to community property regulations, challenging a will necessitates being an “interested party.” This includes individuals explicitly mentioned in the will or those who would naturally inherit in the absence of one. The scope extends beyond family members; acquaintances or neighbors are eligible to challenge if a preceding will grants them a larger share. 

Contesting a will hinges on demonstrating its invalidity for various reasons, such as the testator’s mental incapacity during its drafting. Take, for example, a person’s Alzheimer's diagnosis 15 years prior to penning their statement. Substantiating their mental state at that time would require historical records or corroborative testimony. Additional bases for contestation include:

  • Undue influence of someone in proximity to the testator.

  • Flaws in the will’s formalities.

  • Retraction of the will by the testator.

  • Signs of deceit or counterfeiting.

To contest a will in Arizona, the family should gather to read the will, preferably with an attorney or a third party present. Keeping the will is crucial, as the probate court only accepts the original document. 

All interested parties should be notified and given a copy within 30 days of the will's admission to probate. They have 40 days from this notice to contest the will. If the will has already gone through the informal probate process, it can be contested within 12 months of the end of the process, even if that period extends beyond the two-year window allowed for initiating probate.

What Happens if Someone Dies Without a Will in Arizona?

In Arizona, when someone dies without a will, their assets are distributed according to the state’s intestate succession laws. These laws determine heirs based on their relationship to the deceased, with the spouse and other relatives defined by state law having inheritance rights. 

If no eligible heirs — spouse or family members, for example — are found, the State of Arizona will take over the estate. Crucially, assets held in trust or non-probate assets are not subject to intestate inheritance laws; they only apply to estate assets that need to be probated.

Spousal Rights

Arizona utilizes a community property inheritance system. Under this doctrine, spouses share ownership of assets acquired during their marriage, regardless of individual contributions or whose name appears on the property's title. 

Spousal intestate rights in Arizona are defined by the presence of children and the surviving spouse’s relationship with them. If the deceased has no children or all children are also the offspring of the surviving spouse, the spouse inherits the entire estate, including separate and community property. 

Conversely, if there are surviving children from the decedent who are not offspring of the surviving spouse, the spouse is entitled to one-half of the intestate's separate property. In this case, the spouse does not inherit part of the decedent’s share of the community property.

Rights of Ex-spouses

Following a divorce in Arizona, an ex-spouse generally does not have inheritance rights if the deceased did not leave a will. According to Arizona intestacy law, the property of a person who dies without a will passes to their surviving spouse and descendants. Descendants include all generations, with the parent-child relationship defining each generation. Since a divorced spouse is no longer legally a surviving spouse, they typically do not inherit under intestacy law.

Rights of Domestic Partners

Individuals in non-marital, opposite-sex partnerships in Arizona cannot inherit from their deceased partner who did not leave a legally binding will. Arizona’s intestate succession law exclusively reserves this right to legally married surviving spouses.

Rights of Putative Spouses

Arizona law recognizes the inheritance rights of a putative spouse to property acquired during the relationship. A putative spouse refers to a person who is unaware of their marriage's invalidity but genuinely believes in its legitimacy. Putative marriages occur due to flaws like failure to meet certain solemnization criteria or an undissolved marriage by one party.

Children’s Rights

Regardless of their parent’s marital status, both biological and adopted children are recognized as heirs of their parents for intestate succession. This principle holds true unless disputed and resolved in court. 

Adopted children inherit from their foster parents, not from their biological ones. However, if a child is legally adopted by their step-parent, who is married to one of their biological parents, this legal act does not change their rights to inherit from their other birth parent. Notably, for a biological parent to have inheritance rights from or through their child, they must have consistently acknowledged and supported the child as their own.

Rights of Other Surviving Relatives

When a person passes away without a surviving spouse, their assets are allocated according to Arizona intestate law. Initially, it goes to their children. If there are no children, the decedent’s parents or a surviving parent receive it. In the absence of parents and children, the estate is handed to the descendants of the deceased’s parents. 

In cases where none of these heirs are alive, the inheritance is divided among relatives on the paternal and maternal sides. If one side has no living grandparents or their offspring, the whole inheritance transfers to the surviving side’s relatives. 

Estates With No Heirs

In Arizona, when a person dies without a will and has no identifiable heir, their property becomes an escheated estate. As mentioned in the introduction, the property is transferred to the Arizona Department of Revenue's Unclaimed Property Unit. The unit takes charge of the estate in cases where there are no known devisees or heirs or when such parties cannot be located.

Notably, an heir, devisee, or their duly appointed representative retains the right to file a claim for the proceeds of an escheated property. This claim must be made within seven years of the property’s sale.

Unique Situations in Arizona Inheritance Law

Type of Heir

Right to the Intestate Estate

Non-U.S. citizen

In Arizona, a non-resident alien’s right to inherit is conditional on their home country granting similar inheritance rights to U.S. citizens. 

Posthumously conceived children

Posthumously conceived children are entitled to inherit assets if their deceased parent has signed a document indicating their intent to be a parent or if such intent can be proven with clear and convincing evidence. The child must be conceived within 36 months or born within 45 months of the parent’s death to be considered an heir.

Half-blood relatives

In Arizona, half-blood relatives, such as half-siblings, have the same inheritance rights as whole-blood relatives. This rule also applies to half-blood relatives conceived before but born after the testator’s death.

Individual guilty of murdering the decedent

According to Arizona law, an heir who is convicted of feloniously and intentionally killing the decedent forfeits all inheritance rights to the estate. This includes any intestate or elective share, exempt property, homestead or family allowance, and omitted spouse's or child's share. If the testator died intestate, the estate is distributed as if the convicted heir had renounced their share.

Same-sex partner

Same-sex couples in Arizona have the same inheritance rights as married heterosexual couples. This equal treatment in estate and inheritance rights was established after significant legal verdicts, including the Windsor Supreme Court decision and the Obergefell ruling. These verdicts resulted in same-sex marriage being recognized under Arizona's state and federal inheritance laws.

Does Arizona Impose Inheritance and Estate Taxes?

Estate and inheritance taxes are imposed on property transfers upon death. An estate tax is levied on the deceased's estate, whereas an inheritance tax is set on the deceased's heirs.

In Arizona, heirs are not burdened with inheritance tax when they receive assets from the deceased. Nevertheless, the state taxes the deceased’s estate before its division among beneficiaries. This estate tax aligns with federal guidelines, which may include unlimited marital and charitable deductions when applicable. 

For information on the estate tax regulations that apply to married couples who are not citizens of the United States, consulting an estate planning lawyer is advisable. 

In Arizona, there used to be a generation skipping transfer tax (GSTT). This tax applies to gifts made through trusts to family members and others who are at least one generation younger than the creator of the trust. The GSTT, along with the estate tax, has been repealed in the state effective January 1, 2006. However, at the federal level, this tax remains in effect. 

Legal Resources Related to Inheritance Law in Arizona

Probate Lawyers Assistance Project

The Probate Lawyers Assistance Project offers vital support to Arizonans regarding probate matters. As a pro bono program, PLAP provides free legal advice to eligible low-income individuals with probate court concerns. Volunteer attorneys are available for half-hour consultations to answer legal questions. They also provide general information about trial preparations and court hearings and advice on forms from the Maricopa County Superior Court Self-Service Center. Additionally, PLAP addresses issues involving guardianships, conservatorships, and formal and informal probate procedures.

Consultations are by appointment only and are available on Wednesdays between 9 a.m. and 12 p.m. or 1:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. To schedule an appointment, call (602) 732-2834.

Arizona Law Help

Arizona Law Help is a joint project of various legal entities, including the Arizona Foundation for Legal Services & Education, Southern Arizona Legal Aid, Inc., DNA People's Legal Services, Community Legal Services, the State Bar of Arizona, and the William E. Morris Institute for Justice. It offers free or reduced-fee legal aid to qualified individuals. 

Interested parties can call 866-637-5341 or use the online application link to check their eligibility. They can also select their county of residence for more localized legal help. In addition, the website’s “Questions” page connects users to Arizona Free Legal Answers, a virtual legal advice clinic where eligible users can ask volunteer attorneys about legal civil issues for free.

Southern Arizona Legal Aid

Southern Arizona Legal Aid offers civil legal aid to individuals needing expert counsel and representation, including those with inheritance and probate concerns. SALA customizes its services to accommodate people from all walks of life, encompassing people with disabilities and those with different nationalities. 

Interested parties are encouraged to contact SALA for further details or to assess their eligibility for legal aid. For those requiring legal assistance regarding inheritance matters, Southern Arizona Legal Aid can be reached at (520) 623-9461. Its administrative office is located at 2343 E Broadway Blvd, #200, Tucson, AZ. Additional information can be accessed at the SALA’s website.

Arizona Judicial Branch's Self-Service Center

The Arizona Judicial Branch's Self-Service Center assists with inheritance matters by providing individuals access to legal information and required court forms for self-representation. It serves as a valuable resource for those navigating the court system on their own. Additionally, it helps individuals determine if their concerns can be addressed by court staff or if they require legal advice from an attorney.

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