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Known for its vibrant cities and thriving industries, California is also a hub of estate planning and probate activity. With a population exceeding 39 million, it is unsurprising that inheritance matters can occasionally lead to disputes and contentious legal battles. 

One such case was the 2014 Sterling v Sterling legal battle, which revolved around the ownership of the Los Angeles Clippers, an NBA team, and its owner Donald Sterling. When speculation about Donald Sterling’s mental capacity arose from private recordings of him making racially insensitive remarks, his estranged wife sought to remove him as trustee, arguing that his alleged mental capacity rendered him unfit to manage his affairs effectively. Ultimately, the court ruled in favor of removing Sterling as the trustee of his estate, citing his mental incapacity as a determining factor. 

The Sterling v Sterling case is a significant example of how California inheritance laws can intersect with mental capacity issues and their implications on an individual's ability to manage their estate. As we examine California's inheritance laws further, it is crucial to remember the lessons learned from cases like Sterling v Sterling and understand how they have shaped the legal landscape surrounding estate planning, probate, and mental capacity in the state. By doing so, we can better understand the legal intricacies involved in managing and transferring assets within California's jurisdiction.

Does California Have an Inheritance or Estate Tax?

No, California does not have a separate inheritance tax. However, it does have an estate tax in the form of an estate tax lien. This means that when a California resident passes away, a lien is placed on their property to secure any potential estate taxes owed. The lien remains in effect until the taxes are paid or until the statute of limitations expires.

Dying With a Will in California

When a loved one passes away in California, understanding the process that unfolds when there is a will can help you navigate legal aspects smoothly. Here is what generally happens:

1. Validating the Will

The first step is to determine the validity of the will. The will is submitted to the probate court, which reviews its authenticity and ensures it meets the legal requirements. 

2. Appointment of Executor

If the will designates an executor or personal representative, the court will appoint that person to administer the estate. If no executor is named or the designated executor is unable or unwilling to serve, the court will appoint an administrator.

3. Probate Process

Probate is the legal process through which the estate is settled and the will is administered. The executor or administrator manages the estate's affairs during probate. This includes identifying and gathering the assets, paying off debts and taxes, and distributing the remaining assets to the beneficiaries according to the terms of the will.

4. Notification of Beneficiaries and Creditors

The executor is responsible for notifying the beneficiaries named in the will about the death and their entitlements. Creditors are also notified to allow them to make claims against the estate for any debts owed. 

5. Inventory and Appraisal

The executor prepares an inventory of the deceased person’s assets, including real estate, bank accounts, investments, and personal belongings. The assets are then appraised to determine their fair market value.

6. Payment of Debts and Taxes

The executor uses the estate’s funds to pay off any outstanding debts, such as mortgages, loans, credit card balances, and funeral expenses. Additionally, the executor files the necessary tax returns and ensures that any taxes owed are paid.

7. Distribution of Assets

Once all debts, taxes, and administrative expenses have been settled, the executor distributes the remaining assets to the beneficiaries as specified in the will. The distribution is typically done after receiving court approval. 

What Happens if You Die Without a Will in California?

When someone dies without a will in California, their estate is considered "intestate." In such cases, the distribution of assets and the estate administration are governed by the laws of intestate succession in the state. 

While this process is designed to be efficient, it may not align with the deceased person's wishes. Therefore, to avoid intestacy and have more control over the distribution of assets, it is recommended to create a will or engage in estate planning to express your desires regarding your estate and beneficiaries. Consulting with an attorney specializing in estate planning and probate can provide valuable guidance in creating a comprehensive estate plan tailored to your circumstances.

Intestate Succession in California

Here's what typically happens when someone dies without a will in California, and intestate succession is used to administer the estate:

1. Appointment of an Administration

If there is no will designating an executor, the court will appoint an administrator to handle the estate. The administrator is typically a close family member or another interested party.

2. Identifying and Gathering Assets

The administrator’s first task is to locate and collect all the deceased person’s assets. This may include bank accounts, real estate, investments, personal belongings, and other property.

3. Payment of Debts and Taxes

The administrator is responsible for paying off the deceased person’s debts, including outstanding bills, taxes, and funeral expenses. They may need to sell assets to cover these obligations if there aren’t enough liquid funds in the estate.

4. Determining Heirs under Intestate Succession

If there is no will, the state’s laws determine who the legal heirs are and how the estate will be distributed. The assets are generally divided among the surviving spouse, children, parents, siblings, and other close relatives based on a predetermined hierarchy outlined in the California Probate Code.

5. Distribution of Assets

Once debts, taxes, and administrative expenses have been settled, the administrator distributes the remaining assets to the heirs according to the intestate succession laws. The distribution is typically supervised by the court to ensure fairness.

Community Property in California Inheritance Law

In California, any property or assets acquired by a married couple or registered domestic partners during their marriage or partnership are generally considered community property. This includes income, real estate, investments, and other assets obtained during the union, regardless of which spouse or partner earned or acquired them. Community property assumes that spouses or partners have equal ownership and rights to the assets acquired during the marriage or partnership. Each partner has a 50% ownership interest.

When one spouse or partner dies, their share of the community property is typically transferred to the surviving spouse. This means the surviving spouse automatically inherits the deceased partner's 50% ownership interest in the community property. 

Separate Property in California Inheritance Law

In contrast to community property, separate property refers to assets acquired by an individual spouse or partner before the marriage or partnership, through inheritance or gifts during the marriage, or designated as separate property through a written agreement. Separate property is not subject to community property rules and is generally retained by the individual who owns it. Therefore, it does not transfer automatically to the surviving spouse. Instead, the distribution is governed by the presence of a valid will or the intentions expressed by the deceased individual. 

Spousal Rights According to California Inheritance Law

In addition to community property rights, a surviving spouse has certain spousal rights that provide them with protections and entitlements in case of their partner's death. These rights include the following:

Intestate Share

California's intestate succession laws determine how the estate is distributed when a person dies without a valid will. In this case, the surviving spouse is entitled to a portion of the deceased spouse's estate, even if they have children or other relatives. The size of the spousal share depends on the pretense of other legal heirs and the nature of the assets.

Homestead Exemption

The surviving spouse may claim a homestead exemption under California law. The exemption protects the surviving spouse for their primary residence by exempting a certain amount of equity from the claims of creditors. The amount varies based on age and disability.

Family Allowance

In California, the surviving spouse may be entitled to a reasonable family allowance from the deceased spouse’s estate. This allowance is intended to provide financial support to the surviving spouse and minor children during the probate process and before the distribution of assets is completed. 

Elective Shares

If the deceased spouse left a will, California law provides the surviving spouse with the right to claim an elective share. This means that the surviving spouse can choose to accept either what is left to them in the will or a statutory share, a percentage of the deceased spouse's estate determined by law. 

Children's Rights to Inheritance According to California Law

Under California law, children have certain inheritance rights when their parents pass away. These rights protect children's interests and ensure they receive a fair share of their parent's estate. 

Intestate Share

California intestate succession laws will determine how the estate is distributed when a parent dies without a will. If no surviving spouse exists, the deceased's children will inherit the estate. The specific share depends on the number of children and whether there are other legal heirs.

Child’s Share of Separate Property

When a parent dies, their separate property is inherited by their children. The children’s share of the separate property depends on the number and the presence of other legal heirs. 

Right to Contest a Will

If a child believes that a parent’s will is invalid or that their share of the estate is not adequately provided for, they may have the right to contest the will. To contest a will, the child must demonstrate legal grounds, such as undue influence, lack of capacity, or fraud.

Support and Maintenance

California law imposes a legal duty on parents to support and maintain their minor children. Therefore, if a parent fails to provide for their children adequately in their will, the children may have legal recourse to claim their fair share of the estate for their support and maintenance.

Illegitimate Children

In California, illegitimate children retain inheritance rights to their biological parents' estate. This is because the California Probate Code treats illegitimate children equally with legitimate children regarding inheritance. In other words, if a child is born illegitimate and their parent dies without a will, they have the right to inherit from their parent’s estate just as a legitimate child would.

It's important to note that the relationship between an illegitimate child and their biological parent must be established. This can be done through various means, such as genetic testing, an acknowledgment of paternity, or a court determination of paternity. 

Single and Childless in California Inheritance Law

If the deceased person has a valid will or designated beneficiaries for their assets through other means, like a payable-on-death bank account, those individuals would inherit the property according to the terms of the will or beneficiary designations. However, if there are no surviving close relatives, a single and childless person's property will generally pass to the state through a legal process called escheat. Escheat is the transfer of property to the government when there is no apparent owner or rightful heir. 

Before this happens, though, the court and any relevant authorities will make reasonable efforts to identify any relatives who may have a claim to the deceased person's property. This may involve reaching out to distant relatives, if any are known, or conducting genealogical research. The property will be deemed unclaimed if no known relatives or eligible heirs come forward within a specific timeframe. At this point, the property is at risk of escheat to the state. 

This process can vary by jurisdiction, but in California, the property is generally transferred to the state’s Controller’s Office, which manages unclaimed property. The state will continue to attempt to locate any rightful heirs and allow them to claim the property. If no heirs come forward, the state may sell the property at a public auction or retain it for public purposes.

Non-Probate California Inheritances

Non-probate inheritances transfer directly to beneficiaries upon the owner's death without the need for court involvement or probate administration. The following list details some common examples of non-probate inheritances in California:

  • Joint Tenancy with Rights of Survivorship: When two or more individuals own property as joint tenants with the right of survivorship, the surviving owner automatically inherits the deceased owner's share upon death. This often applies to real estate, bank accounts, and investment accounts held in joint tenancy.

  • Beneficiary Designations: Certain assets allow owners to designate beneficiaries who will receive the assets upon their death. Examples include life insurance policies, retirement accounts (such as IRAs and 401Ks), annuities, and payable-on-death or transfer-on-death accounts. The assets are directly transferred to the named beneficiaries without going through probate.

  • Living Trusts: Assets held in a revocable living trust can avoid probate upon the owner's death. The trust agreement specifies how the assets will be distributed to the named beneficiaries. 

  • Prenuptial or Postnuptial Agreements: In some cases, individuals may establish prenuptial or postnuptial agreements defining how specific assets will be distributed upon death. These agreements can specify non-probate transfers, overriding the default rules of intestate succession or community property laws. 

Unique Situations in California Inheritance Law

One unique aspect of California inheritance law is the concept of quasi-community property. Quasi-community property refers to assets acquired by a married couple or registered domestic partners while living in a non-community property state that would have been considered community property if acquired while residing in California. When the couple moves to California, these assets are treated similarly to community property upon the death of a spouse or partner.

Apart from quasi-community property, another situation unique to California’s inheritance laws is the ability for parents to disinherit their children. Unlike some jurisdictions, California does not have laws that require parents to leave a portion of their estate to their children. Parents generally have the freedom to decide how to distribute their assets, including the option to disinherit their children entirely. However, certain legal safeguards exist to prevent complete disinheritance in some situations, such as when a child is a minor or when there are existing legal obligations for child support.

How Long Do You Have to Contest a Will in California?

The time frame for contesting a will in California is generally within 120 days from the date the court notifies the interested parties about the commencement of the probate process. This notification is typically done through the issuance of a “Notice of Petition to Administer Estate" by the executor or administrator of the estate. The 120-day period allows interested parties to read the will and file a contest if they believe there are grounds to challenge its validity. 

However, it's important to note that some exceptions and circumstances can affect this deadline. For example, if a person with a potential interest in the will needs to receive proper notice of the probate proceedings, they may have an extended period to file a contest.

In addition, if the contest is based on allegations of fraud, duress, undue diligence, or forgery, the 120-day period may not apply. The interested party may have a longer timeframe to contest the will from the date they discovered or reasonably should have discovered the grounds for the challenge.

Lastly, if the beneficiary or interested party is a minor or incapacitated, they may have an extended period to contest the will once they reach legal capacity or turn 18.

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