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Hawaii Inheritance Laws

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Close to 600 deaths were reported for every 100,000 people in Hawaii in 2022, with heart disease—often referred to as a “silent killer"—as the leading cause of death. Because heart disease can strike unexpectedly, it is important for people in Hawaii to understand the state's inheritance laws.

The Aloha State’s inheritance laws bear the imprint of a rich cultural tapestry, reflecting the state's diverse heritage. The state’s concept of family, known as 'ohana, comprises not only parents and their children but also grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, and other relatives.

Such a focus on family underscores the importance of Hawaii’s inheritance laws. Understanding these laws empowers bereaved family members to handle legal processes, honor the wishes of their deceased loved ones, and efficiently manage financial matters during difficult times. 

This article seeks to provide a comprehensive understanding of the intricacies surrounding inheritance laws in the Aloha State as families and heirs safeguard the legacies of their loved ones.

What Happens if Someone Dies With a Will in Hawaii?

For a will to be considered valid, it must adhere to the requirements set by the state. In Hawaii, the following elements are necessary for a will:

  • Age: The testator (the person who made the will) must be at least 18 years of age.

  • Capacity: For the will to be considered valid, the testator must be in good mental health or “sound mind.” 

  • Signature: The testator must execute the will by affixing his signature to the document. Alternatively, the testator may instruct another individual to sign the will on their behalf under explicit instructions and within their immediate awareness.

  • Witnesses: In order to establish the authenticity and legal validity of a will, two witnesses must sign the document within an appropriate period of time after seeing the testator’s signature and confirming the will itself.

Notably, only printed paper wills are permissible; no digital formats, including audio, video, or other electronic documents, are considered valid. 

In Hawaii, handwritten wills are also accepted even in the absence of the notarization of an attorney. These are often called “holographic wills.” However, these handwritten wills may be challenged in probate court if the handwriting is hard to read. In these particular cases, the court may need handwriting experts or people who know the deceased's handwriting to confirm the signature is authentic.

It is also important to note that holographic wills, when submitted as evidence in probate court, may not faithfully represent the decedent’s final wishes. Some may even argue that the deceased may have created the holographic will as a draft and unintentionally failed to make any subsequent changes. 

Contesting a Will

In Hawaii, those who may have legal standing to contest a will include:

  • Heirs and beneficiaries, or those who would inherit from the decedent if the will were found invalid. This may include close family members and individuals who have been designated as beneficiaries in a previous will.

  • Surviving spouses: A surviving spouse may contest the validity of a will if they believe they are not sufficiently provided for or have been left out of the will.

  • Parties with legal interest: Any individual possessing a legal claim in the estate, including those designated as executors in a previous will or those with a financial stake in the estate, may contest a will.

Will contests generally revolve around specific grounds, such as fraud, lack of mental capacity, and undue influence. Regardless of the reason, will contests in Hawaii are subject to specific timelines. A will may be challenged by an interested party prior to the expiration of the following:

  • 90 days following the date on which the informal proceeding was announced.

  • 12 months from the date of the will's informal admission to probate.

  • 30 days after an informally-appointed personal representative enters a formal order authorizing the accounts and settlement of the estate.

What Happens if Someone Dies Without a Will in Hawaii?

If an individual fails to establish a legally binding will in the Aloha State, the distribution of their estate will be subject to the state's intestate succession laws

A person who dies without a valid will is said to have died "intestate," that is, without a testament. These laws determine how the decedent’s property will be distributed among the closest relatives, who are usually the heirs at law.

The decedent’s estate will then go to probate, a legal process that involves the distribution of the deceased's assets to their rightful heirs and beneficiaries while settling any outstanding debts owed to creditors. 

Regardless of the monetary value of the estate, probate is required in Hawaii if a person passes away with any property owned solely in their name. This includes personal belongings, bank accounts, business interests, houses, and cars. 

If the value of personal property is less than $100,000, it can be transferred to the beneficiaries without going to probate. This can be done using a simple affidavit, although this option is only available if no other probate proceedings have been started and at least 30 days have passed since the death of the decedent.

Probate is also necessary if the total value of all personal property owned solely by the deceased exceeds $100,000. 

There are three types of probate in Hawaii: informal, unsupervised formal, and supervised formal. 

Informal Probate: This streamlined process happens outside of court when no disputes over the estate are expected. It allows for faster resolution without court supervision.

Unsupervised Formal Probate: This involves some court oversight during certain stages, such as validating the will or authorizing the executor. However, the court does not monitor every step. This is used for more complicated estates when some court supervision is beneficial.

Supervised Formal Probate: The entire administration of the estate occurs under close court supervision. This is reserved for contentious cases with major disputes that require a judge's involvement to resolve creditor claims or heir conflicts over asset distribution.

The probate process in the state typically follows a standard sequence of steps: 

  • Initiating communication with the court.

  • Notifying all heirs and beneficiaries.

  • Conducting a comprehensive assessment and valuation of all pertinent assets.

  • Paying outstanding obligations.

  • Distributing the assets to the designated beneficiaries.

  • Closing the estate.

Spousal Rights

Hawaii is not a community property state, which essentially means that when a person passes away, assets held in his sole name will pass to the beneficiaries designated in the will. 

Regardless of the terms of the will, however, a surviving spouse has the right to a portion of the decedent’s estate (including assets held in probate, insurance, and trusts) based on the length of their marriage. Hawaii also follows the guidelines set forth by the Uniform Probate Code. 

According to the Uniform Probate Code (UPC), the surviving spouse is entitled to exercise their claim to an “elective share” of the augmented estate, which encompasses the combined assets of both the deceased spouse and the surviving spouse.

As specified in Hawaii Revised Statutes Section 560:2-202, the quantity of the "elective share" is as follows:

Less than one year

Supplemental amount only

1 year but less than 2 years

3% of the augmented estate

2 years but less than 3 years

6% of the augmented estate

3 years but less than 4 years

9% of the augmented estate

4 years but less than 5 years

12% of the augmented estate

5 years but less than 6 years

15% of the augmented estate

6 years but less than 7 years

18% of the augmented estate

7 years but less than 8 years

21% of the augmented estate.

8 years but less than 9 years

24% of the augmented estate.

9 years but less than 10 years

27% of the augmented estate

10 years but less than 11 years

30% of the augmented estate

11 years but less than 12 years

34% of the augmented estate

12 years but less than 13 years

38% of the augmented estate

13 years but less than 14 years

42% of the augmented estate

14 years but less than 15 years

46% of the augmented estate

15 years or more

50% of the augmented estate

Domestic partners, or partners in a civil union, also bear the same rights, protections, and benefits as married partners under Hawaii law. In addition, the term “spouse” and other related terms used in the laws of the state include partners in a civil union. Therefore, it follows that domestic partners are entitled to inherit intestate in a manner that is equivalent to that of spouses.

Former spouses also lose all claims in their ex-spouse’s estate and personal property once the divorce is finalized, a court order divides the property, or a year passes after a court order delays the property division. 

Children’s Rights

Children in Hawaii are entitled to a portion of an estate bequeathed intestate if their parent dies without a valid will. The amount of benefits each child receives is contingent upon several factors, including the existence of a surviving spouse, the number of children, and whether these children are shared with the surviving spouse. The table below would explain what would happen:

Situation

Who inherits the property?

Has children, but no surviving spouse

Children acquire everything

Surviving spouse, but no descendants or parents

Spouse acquires everything 

Surviving spouse and children with that spouse

Spouse acquires everything

Surviving spouse and children with that spouse, and child or children with someone other than the surviving spouse

Spouse acquires $100,000 of the property, plus half of the remainder; Children acquire everything else

Surviving spouse and children with that spouse, and the spouse has children from another relationship (not the decedent’s)

Spouse acquires $150,000 of the property, plus half of the remainder; The decedent’s children acquire everything else

Note that for children to inherit from an individual under the state’s intestacy laws, they must be legally recognized offspring of the decedent. To meet this criteria, they must fulfill certain legal requirements such as being formally adopted, being born within a legally recognized marriage, or being born outside of marriage but subsequently having a marriage established or paternity confirmed. 

Additional rules apply when it comes to children’s inheritance rights in Hawaii:

  • Adopted children are entitled to the same intestate share as biological children. However, children put up for adoption and were legally adopted by other individuals or families are not eligible for a share. In the case of one’s spouse adopting the decedent’s biological children (from a previous relationship or marriage), this does not affect the children’s intestate inheritance. 

  • Stepchildren and foster children who were not legally adopted will not automatically inherit. 

  • Children born after the decedent’s death but were conceived prior will still receive a share.

  • Children born to parents who are not legally married shall be entitled to a portion of the estate provided the decedent acknowledged paternity, raised or treated the child as their own, and did not deny support. 

  • Grandchildren will be able to receive a share only if that grandchild’s parent (the decedent’s son or daughter) is no longer alive to receive their share.

The Rights of Other Surviving Relatives

When an individual passes away without a valid will, remains unmarried, and does not have any descendants, their estate shall automatically transfer to their parents

Hawaii recognizes the validity of common law unions that have been established and sanctioned in other states or countries, despite the absence of such unions in its own jurisdiction.

If the decedent’s parents have both passed away, the subsequent beneficiaries who are entitled to inherit are the decedent’s siblings. 

If there are no surviving siblings, the portion of the estate that would have been allocated to them is transferred to their children (the decedent’s nephews or nieces). 

If an individual dies without being married, having any children, or having any surviving siblings, the inheritance framework is expanded to include their grandparents. 

Estates With No Heirs

If an individual passes away without a valid will and has no family, their property will be given to the state. In practice, this is exceedingly uncommon since state laws are formulated to distribute a deceased individual’s property to any relative, no matter how distant.

If an individual who has no heirs but has interest or ownership of kuleana lands (land granted to native Hawaiians) dies, those lands will be transferred to the Department of Land and Natural Resources, where it shall remain in trust until the Office of Hawaiian Affairs formulates a land management plan.

Unique Situations in Hawaii Inheritance Law

Other noteworthy inheritance laws in Hawaii include the following:

  •  Half-relatives are entitled to inherit assets and property just like “whole” relatives. 

  • Citizenship or legal status is irrelevant for individuals who are eligible to inherit from a decedent’s estate.

  • The monetary value of a property transferred to a family member during a decedent’s lifetime will only be deducted from the family member's share if the transfer arrangement is explicitly documented or if the family member confirms and acknowledges this in writing. 

  • To be eligible to receive an inheritance, a person named in a will must survive a decedent for at least 120 hours. This is otherwise known as a survivorship clause, which is a common feature of many wills. It stipulates that the beneficiaries named in the will are ineligible to inherit until they have survived for a specific period of time following the death of the will-maker. For example, if two siblings figure in an accident together but one dies a few hours before the other, the former’s estate would not receive any of the latter’s property.

Does Hawaii Impose Inheritance and Estate Taxes?

Hawaii does not impose inheritance taxes, but it does have estate taxes. While inheritance taxes are levied on beneficiaries after they receive their inheritance, estate taxes are deducted from the assets of a decedent immediately after their death. 

The estate tax system is progressive, with lower rates for lower-income earners and higher rates for higher-income earners. In Hawaii, when the estate value exceeds $5.4 million, an estate tax report must be submitted. This includes assets such as life insurance policies, retirement accounts, bank accounts, real estate, and investment portfolios.

Note that the federal estate tax, which only applies to estates valued over $12.92 million (for those who passed away in 2023), is distinct from the Hawaii estate tax. Therefore, while one’s estate may not be large enough to owe federal estate tax, it may still owe Hawaii estate tax.

Legal Resources Related to Inheritance Law in Hawaii

Hawaii's inheritance laws can be complex, especially for those who cannot afford private counsel. The subsequent resources have been curated to assist both these individuals and those seeking to ask simple questions to legal professionals.

Legal Aid Society of Hawaii

Established in 1950, the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii is a non-profit organization that focuses on providing Hawaiians access to justice, regardless of their economic circumstances. In addition to providing legal services to low-income individuals and families facing critical legal concerns, the organization conducts community outreach to equip citizens with the knowledge necessary to assert their legal rights. Citizens may call 808-536-4302 for assistance.

Hawaii State Bar Association - Lawyer Referral and Information Service

Individuals in need of legal aid will find the Lawyer Referral and Information Service (LRIS) of the Hawaii State Bar Association to be a valuable resource. The primary objective of LRIS is to facilitate the public's access to competent and experienced legal counsel by acting as an intermediary between the two groups. The referrals are provided at no cost to clients, who are encouraged to initiate communication with the referred attorneys to ensure their suitability for the legal matter at hand, as well as the associated fees and conditions. Contact the organization via telephone at (808) 537-9140 or via email at lris@hsba.org.

Hawaii Online Pro Bono

Hawaii Online Pro Bono is an internet-based platform designed to cater to the legal needs of Hawaii residents with low to moderate income levels. This online legal clinic offers users the convenience of obtaining answers to their civil legal inquiries 24/7 by connecting citizens with Hawaii-licensed attorneys who are able to assist.

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