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Colorado Inheritance Laws

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If you pass on without a will, your estate and survivors are at the mercy of Colorado’s inheritance laws without regard for your personal preferences. If your will was hastily made without proper legal guidance, it could lead to disputes and general ill feelings among your intended beneficiaries, not to mention extra legal expenses. 

The case of William Decker of La Plata County is an example of a Colorado inheritance dispute that was featured in the news. Decker killed two of his mother’s beneficiaries after being upset over his mother bequeathing a ranch to the victims instead of to him. 

Inheritance and probate laws in any state are complex, which is why it is always advised to seek qualified legal guidance. One of the most common myths is that only estates without valid wills must undergo probate. 

In Colorado, all estates with or without wills must go through probate, except for small estates (valued under $74,000 as of 2022). 

Estates with wills typically use the informal probate process, where the local probate court provides minimal supervision since there exists a will that outlines the estate’s administration. Estates without wills or that have will contests or potential inheritance disputes undergo the formal probate process

This article seeks to provide information on the basic concepts and processes involved in the distribution of a deceased person’s assets in Colorado.

What Happens if Someone Dies With a Will in Colorado

The basic purpose of writing a will is to indicate the people who will inherit which of your assets after you pass away. You can specify in the will how you want your assets to be treated.

If someone dies with a will in Colorado, they are called “testate.” The informal probate process below is generally followed: 

  1. Filing of the will in probate court: The executor specified in the will accomplishes this step. If there is no executor, a volunteer personal representative of the decedent, usually a family member, can do this. The filing must be made in the county where the decedent resided or had property. This step begins the process of informal probate. Ideally, the will must be filed within 10 days of the decedent's death. 

  2. Appointment of personal representative: After the will is filed, the court shall issue the letter of appointment as the decedent’s personal representative to the executor or interested party. According to the Colorado Bar’s probate guide, only after this appointment can the executor have the authority to administer the will. Also, at this point, the decedent’s estate is considered “open” and shall remain open for a minimum of six months

  3. Administration of the testate estate: The personal representative starts performing their duties. These include contacting the devisees and heirs, arranging a bank account and tax identification number for the decedent's estate, and collecting and accounting for the decedent’s assets. The personal representative also notifies the decedent’s creditors, pays off debts, pays for burial expenses, and files estate tax returns. 

  4. Closing of the estate: The personal representative can close the estate after the decedent's debts are settled and bills are paid. The remaining assets in the estate will then be distributed to the devisees and heirs according to the will. 

If there is any contest to the will or doubt of its validity, or if the will is simply vague, the formal probate process will be used. The court has more supervision over a formal probate. Usually, the personal representative must get the court’s approval for every transaction.  

Requirements for a Valid Will

Some requirements must be met for a will to be considered valid in Colorado. The testator must be an adult (18 years old and up), of sound mind and free will and must affix their signature on the will. The will itself must be in writing, usually by an attorney. Verbal wills or declarations are not valid in the state. 

Lastly, the will must be witnessed, and this can be done in two ways. First, two adult witnesses must sign the will to confirm that they witnessed the testator signing the said will. Second, the testator must sign the will before a notary public. 

If the will is contested, the witnesses or notary public can confirm that the testator signed the will and was mentally competent 

It is best to prepare your will with the guidance of a probate attorney to ensure that all your assets, expenses, inheritors, and the probate process are accounted for in the will. 

Your will is basically a set of instructions. If it leaves out a lot of things, like where your bank accounts are located and who should manage the money for your child, it may lead to problems for your surviving loved ones later on. 

Holographic Wills

A holographic will is fully handwritten, signed, and dated by the testator himself/herself. Colorado law considers this type of will valid and enforceable even without witnesses.

Contesting a Will

Only an “interested party” may contest a will’s validity in Colorado. An "interested party" refers to anyone named as a beneficiary in this will, a previous will, or heirs entitled to inherit under state law.

Generally, there are three grounds for contesting a will: 

  • Undue influence: This is when the testator’s decisions regarding the will have been influenced or manipulated, usually by taking advantage of the testator’s trust or the influencer’s power over the testator. A common situation that raises suspicions of undue influence is a will that leaves out the testator’s expected devisees (e.g., the spouse and children) and bequeaths most of the assets to a person with influence, such as the testator’s caregiver or close friend. 

  • Failure of formality: This occurs when the will was not properly executed according to the requirements of Colorado law. For example, the testator did not sign the will, or there are no witnesses or notary public validation (except for holographic wills). 

  • Testamentary incapacity: The testator may have been mentally incapacitated when the will was created. For example, the testator had dementia and did not know they were signing a will. Testamentary incapacity can also happen when the testator does not understand the consequences of the will or does not have all the necessary information to make informed decisions. For example, the testator did not know how many assets they actually had or did not know of a living heir to whom they would have left assets if they only knew. 

Depending on the particulars of a will contest, it must be filed within six months of the decedent's death and up to three years maximum. It is recommended to consult a local probate attorney if you think a loved one’s will is invalid. 

What Happens if Someone Dies Without a Will in Colorado?

When someone dies without a will, also referred to as “intestate,” their assets will still need to undergo probate. The difference is that their assets will be distributed to heirs according to the state’s intestate succession rules. 

An intestate succession line typically includes direct relatives by blood and marriage, like the legal spouse and parents.

Note that only probate assets will be distributed according to Colorado’s intestate succession rules. Assets in probate are those without designated beneficiaries; assets with listed beneficiaries will not be subject to intestacy rules. 

These are called non-probate assets and are passed on directly to the indicated beneficiaries. Some examples of non-probate assets are: 

  • Insurance policies.

  • IRA, 401(k).

  • Assets in a living trust.

  • Securities in transfer-on-death accounts.

  • Real estate with transfer-on-death deeds.

  • Bank accounts that are payable on death.

  • Assets that are jointly owned with others.

Spousal Rights

In Colorado, a surviving legal spouse has a majority claim over the decedent’s assets. A spouse's rights and portions are as follows: 

If the decedent has a spouse but no children or parents, the spouse will inherit 100% of the estate. 

If the decedent has a spouse and children only with that spouse, the spouse will still inherit 100% of the estate. 

If the decedent has children with the spouse and children with someone other than the spouse, the spouse shall inherit $150,000 plus 50% of the remaining estate. Whatever is left will be inherited by the decedent’s children. 

If the spouse has children with the decedent and with someone other than the decedent, the spouse will inherit $225,000 plus 50% of the remaining assets. The balance will be inherited by the children shared by the spouse and decedent.

If the decedent has a spouse and parents but no children, the spouse will get $300,000 plus 75% of the remaining assets. The decedent's parents will get the remaining 25%. 

Children’s Rights

As can be seen above, children do not always get inheritances if the decedent leaves no will and has a surviving spouse. Also, if multiple children do inherit a portion of the decedent’s estate, it is usually split equally among them. 

Children can inherit 100% of the decedent’s estate if the decedent has no living spouse. This applies even if the decedent has living parents and siblings. 

Children’s inheritances under Colorado’s intestacy laws can come with complexities depending on the relationship to the decedent (see table below).

Biological children born after the decedent's death

They are considered legal heirs and shall inherit from the decedent’s estate according to the state’s intestacy law. This is regardless if they were born within or outside the decedent’s marriage.

Children legally adopted by the decedent 

They are considered legal heirs and have the same right to inheritance as a biological child. The same treatment is given to children whose legal adoption by the decedent was only finalized after the decedent’s passing.

Stepchildren and foster children

Unless legally adopted by the decedent, they will not inherit from the decedent’s estate.

Biological children given up by the decedent for adoption

They will not inherit from the decedent’s estate. Even if they are biologically related to the decedent, the parent-child relationship is severed once they have been given up for adoption.

Grandchildren

The decedent’s grandchildren will only inherit if their parent (the decedent’s child) has already passed away. The inheritance share of the child’s parents will be the portion passed on to the grandchildren.

The Rights of Other Surviving Relatives

Sometimes, the decedent has no surviving spouse or any children. In this case, the next closest relatives, the parents or siblings, stand to inherit the decedent’s estate. 

The parents will take precedence over the siblings, such that the living parents will inherit everything if the decedent has no living spouse, children, or grandchildren. 

Siblings will only be entitled to inherit under the state’s intestate succession rules if the decedent has no living spouse, children, grandchildren, or parents. The estate will be equally divided among the siblings. 

If the decedent has no living spouse, descendants, parents, or siblings, the estate will be divided among the decedent’s maternal and paternal grandparents. 

Estates With No Heirs

Colorado’s intestate succession laws bequeath your assets to any surviving relative, no matter how remotely related to you, such as your sibling’s great-grandchildren. As such, an intestate estate with no heirs is pretty rare. If this ever happens, the estate is considered forfeited or “escheat” and will go to the state’s treasury. 

Personal Representative For Intestate Estates

If the decedent has no will that specifies the executor who will administer their estate, the closest surviving kin is usually appointed as their personal representative. Again, the living spouse takes precedence. If the decedent has no living spouse, any child or heir over 21 years old can volunteer to serve as a personal representative. 

Unique Situations in Colorado Inheritance Law

Colorado laws have provisions to account for some unique inheritance situations, including those involving half-siblings, children conceived or born using assisted reproductive technology, and criminal charges. 

Half-Relatives

Under Colorado Revised Statutes Section 15-11-107, half-siblings have the same right to inheritance as a full sibling. The law does not discriminate against an heir who has one less common ancestor/parent with the decedent. 

Consecutive Deaths of the Decedent and Heir

Colorado law requires a “survivorship period” to establish intestate inheritance in these situations. The heir must survive the decedent by 120 hours to be able to inherit from the decedent’s estate. 

So, if a mother dies in a car accident and their adult child also passes away after more than 120 hours, the child would still be in line for the inheritance. However, since the adult child also eventually dies, their inheritance portion will be passed on to their children. 

This same rule is applied to children who were conceived before the decedent’s death and born after. If the baby lives more than 120 hours after delivery, they are added to the line of succession. 

Slayer Law

Heirs and devisees convicted of the murder, homicide, or manslaughter of the decedent are disinherited from the decedent’s estate. Their benefits will be forfeited as if they disclaimed their rights to inherit. 

This forfeiture of inheritance applies to all of the decedent's probate assets and some non-probate assets, such as real estate properties jointly owned by the convicted slayer. A slayer will also be barred from serving as executor, personal representative, or trustee of the decedent’s estate. 

Immigration Status and Intestate Succession

Your heirs’ immigration status shall not affect their rights to inheritance under Colorado Revised Statutes Section 15-11-111. They can still inherit, even if their presence in the country is not legal or documented. 

Does Colorado Impose Inheritance and Estate Taxes?

Inheritance tax is paid by beneficiaries based only on the assets they inherit from a decedent’s estate. Colorado does not collect inheritance taxes.

However, if the beneficiary inherits property located in a state that requires inheritance tax, the beneficiary will have to pay the tax to that state. Inheritance tax is largely based on where a property is located. 

The amount of estate tax is based on the whole estate’s value. Filing and payment of the estate tax should be arranged by the personal representative before inheritances are distributed. Beneficiaries should not have to pay estate taxes. 

As of 2004, Colorado has eliminated estate taxes. Estates of any Colorado resident who passes away after December 31, 2004, are free of estate taxes on the state level.  

Note that even if estate tax is not required on the state level, some estates may still have to pay federal estate taxes if their value exceeds the exemption threshold. As of 2023, the IRS requires estate taxes on estates that are valued at over $12.92 million

This is a lifetime threshold, meaning the decedent can transfer up to $12.92 million worth of assets to beneficiaries during their lifetime and after death without having to pay estate taxes. 

Legal Resources Related to Inheritance Law in Colorado

Colorado Judicial Branch

The state’s judicial branch provides detailed instructions on how to open the decedent’s estate with and without a will. You can download legal forms to use for probate filings directly from the site. Current filing fees are also indicated on the website. Those who are 125% below the poverty line may qualify to have the filing fee waived.

Colorado Legal Services

If you are a low-income resident who needs assistance with civil matters like probate and inheritance the Colorado Legal Service may be of use. The non-profit agency provides attorney advice, assists with court filings, and refers residents to pro bono legal professionals. It also serves as a central intake coordinator, which processes applications for referrals to other legal resources and volunteer organizations. The agency has local offices across the state and accepts calls and walk-ins during office hours. It is best to call the local office near you before visiting the office to make sure you can be assisted. 

Colorado Bar Association

The association has an online referral service that can help you find licensed attorneys in your location who can assist with estate planning and probate matters. You can find attorneys who can help you draft your will and attorneys who can assist with inheritance concerns. 

Uncompahgre Volunteer Legal Aid

UVLA provides legal assistance for low-income residents of Gunnison, Delta, San Miguel, Ouray, Hinsdale, and Montrose Counties. Eligible residents can have one-on-one consultations with attorneys regarding their legal matters. UVLA can also refer residents to attorneys who can provide representation pro bono. The agency assists with civil matters, including wills and estates. UVLA can be reached at (970)249-7202 or ic@uvlamontrose.org.

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