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Oklahoma Inheritance Laws

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In Oklahoma, understanding inheritance laws is particularly crucial for tribal communities. Home to 38 tribal governments and around 350,000 residents who identify themselves as American Indian or Alaska Native, Oklahoma has the second-highest share of tribal citizens among all 50 states, significantly influencing the cultural and community landscape of the region. With over a million acres of land under Indian status, comprehending inheritance law in the Sooner State is more than just a legal issue — it is a matter of respecting tribal laws and preserving cultural heritage.

The story of the Osage Nation is an example of how things can go wrong when different legal jurisdictions are involved in inheritance matters. It stresses the consequences of a lack of education regarding state regulations and the conflicts that arise when federal, state, and tribal laws collide.

Shifting the focus from these considerations, this article delves into a broader exploration of Oklahoma inheritance law. It covers various topics, including the importance of having a legitimate will, navigating the probate process, and the procedures involved in contesting a will. It also examines the implications of dying intestate (without a will). Finally, it concludes with a compilation of legal resources, providing a comprehensive guide for anyone embarking on their inheritance journey.

What Happens if Someone Dies With a Will in Oklahoma?

When someone dies with a will in Oklahoma, their estate is distributed according to their wishes as stated in the will. A will is a legal document outlining how a deceased person’s estate should be distributed. It ensures one’s wishes regarding the allocation of their property are respected after they pass away. This applies to both personal and real property. 

The will names beneficiaries, which may include family members, friends, churches, charities, and business partners. It also appoints the executor, who will be responsible for dividing the assets among heirs and paying the deceased’s debts and taxes. 

In Oklahoma, a valid will must be written, formally signed, and witnessed by at least two people. The person making the will (the testator) must be at least 18 years old, mentally sound, and not under pressure, deception, or excessive influence from others. In Oklahoma, named beneficiaries in the will are not allowed to act as witnesses to that will. The witnesses must observe the testator’s signing and must also sign the will themselves in the testator’s presence. 

Oklahoma also recognizes a holographic will, as long as it is entirely handwritten, dated, and signed by the testator. It must be specified in the will if the testator wishes to remove a beneficiary. 

The person possessing the will must give it to the executor or probate court within 30 days of learning of the testator’s death. Failing to comply with this 30-day timeframe for submitting the will can result in the possessor being held liable for any resulting damages. If the will is not presented within the required time, an interested party may petition the court for an order mandating the will's presentation by a specified date. Once the will is submitted, the executor, beneficiaries, or creditors may file a petition to initiate the probate process for the deceased's estate. 

Probate is the legal process that identifies the correct heirs of an estate and establishes their property rights. The petition must include the names of the executor, the name of the administrator (if the executor is not willing to serve), the estate’s estimated value, and residency details of heirs, devisees, and legatees.

Assets that go through the probate process are properties without a named beneficiary. Examples of probate assets are the following:

  • Real estate property.

  • Single-owner bank accounts.

  • Securities accounts.

Non-probate assets include:

  • 401(k)s and IRAs.

  • Life insurance.

  • Trust-held assets.

  • Transfer-on-death securities accounts.

  • Pay-on-death bank accounts.

Most household items pass directly to immediate family members without needing probate unless a will specifies otherwise. Successors can claim a deceased's probate personal property valued under $50,000 using a Small Estates Affidavit, excluding real estate. Given the complexities of assets, taxes, and various laws, enlisting an estate planning lawyer is essential, regardless of estate size.

Contesting a Will

In Oklahoma, anyone with a valid claim to the estate can challenge a will. To initiate a will contest, the interested person must file a written statement with the court explaining their reasons for challenging the will. Possible grounds to contest a will include the following: 

  • The person who made the will lacked mental capacity. 

  • The will's creation involved coercion, manipulation, or undue influence. 

  • The will was not properly signed or witnessed as required by law. 

  • A newer version of the will has been found. 

  • The court's incapacity to preside over the will's probate proceedings.

Interested parties generally have three months after the will is admitted to probate to challenge it. However, minors and mentally incompetent individuals have up to 12 months after their incapacities are removed to contest the will. After submitting the written statement detailing the grounds for the will contest to the court, copies of this statement should be delivered to the individual petitioning for probate and to other concerned parties within the county.

If there are subscribing witnesses, they may testify to the will’s proper execution. If none, handwritten proof and statements from other witnesses may be used to prove the will’s validity. Usually, the losing party in a will contest must pay for all the legal expenses. However, in cases where probate is invalidated, the court can allocate these costs to the estate assets. Given the costs involved in will disputes, consulting with a probate lawyer can help you manage the situation with less stress.

What Happens if Someone Dies Without a Will in Oklahoma?

When someone dies without a will in Oklahoma, the state’s statutes decide who inherits their property. The assets are distributed based on a set hierarchy of surviving heirs. Without living relatives, the estate ends up in the state treasury. Minor heirs get their inheritance without restrictions when they become of legal age. If the surviving spouse remarries, the new partner could claim half of the state, which could affect children from the first marriage.

For those with minor children in Oklahoma, not having a will complicates matters. The surviving spouse has to handle the kids’ inheritance and may need to provide a bond to manage it until they become adults. This can spark disputes and incur extra costs. Another concern is the guardianship of children, which might need the advice of a family lawyer. Without a will, the court decides on a guardian. This could lead to family disagreements as the court-appointed guardian might not align with the deceased’s preferences.

Finally, the absence of a will means an individual’s property can be sold to settle debts when they pass away. This leaves them no control over which assets will be liquidated and what will be left to their heirs.

Spousal Rights

Oklahoma follows the equitable division doctrine for property distribution, aiming for fair asset allocation among heirs. In Oklahoma’s intestate succession laws, a surviving spouse’s rights are clear cut. When a person dies without a will, their spouse gets half the property, and children receive the other half. If there are no children, the spouse inherits all property acquired during the marriage. In addition, the spouse inherits a third of the deceased's separate property. The remaining two-thirds of the separate property goes to the parents or siblings if the parents have already passed on. 

Excluded in the laws of intestate succession are former spouses, as only current legal spouses at the time of the decedent’s death have inheritance rights. Additionally, the state does not recognize putative spouses for inheritance, sticking strictly to statutory regulations without considering equitable factors.

Domestic partners, if not legally married to the decedent, do not automatically receive inheritance rights. In such cases, the court must confirm the death, and a tax clearance certificate is required to transfer property titles. Though simpler than probate, this process is necessary for domestic partners to gain property rights. 

Children’s Rights

In Oklahoma, children inherit assets when their parents die without a will, regardless of their status. Whether the children are biological, adopted, born within or outside marriage, or whether they are minors or adults, they all have equal inheritance rights under the state’s intestacy laws. The key to these rights is the establishment of a parent-child relationship

Children born out of wedlock are treated equally with those born to married parents, provided their parental relationship is recognized. Establishing a relationship can be done in various ways, such as the father acknowledging the child, conducting paternity tests, and other legal means.

Adopted children have the same rights as biological children once the adoption is legally finalized. They fully inherit from their adoptive family, just like biological children. However, they lose inheritance rights from their birth parents after adoption. As for an offspring’s age, Oklahoma law makes no distinction between minor and adult children regarding inheritance.

The Rights of Other Surviving Relatives

When someone dies without a will in Oklahoma and leaves behind neither a spouse nor children, a specific set of rules, known as the laws of descent and distribution, comes into play. These rules determine who inherits the estate, following a clear order of relatives. 

First in line are the parents. If the deceased person has no direct descendants, like children or grandchildren, the entire estate goes to the parents. Should the parents already have passed away, the focus shifts to siblings. Here, the estate is equally divided among the deceased’s brothers and sisters.

It is interesting to note that if any sibling has died, their portion of the estate just does not vanish. Instead, it is passed down to their children. The deceased's grandparents and their descendants, who are typically aunts, uncles, and cousins, inherit the estate if there are no living siblings or their descendants.

Estates With No Heirs

In Oklahoma, if a person dies without a will and no identifiable heirs are found, the entire estate is escheated to the state. Escheatment of assets is specifically intended to support common schools in Oklahoma. It ensures unclaimed assets are used for public education rather than left unallocated. However, this process is typically a last resort, materializing only after all efforts to identify possible heirs, such as a spouse, children, parents, siblings, or distant relatives, have been exhausted.

Unique Situations in Oklahoma Inheritance Law

There are several unique situations regarding the inheritance rights of heirs in Oklahoma.

Half-blood Relatives

In Oklahoma, relatives who share one parent with the deceased (half-blood relatives) inherit equally to those who share both parents (whole-blood relatives), as long as they are of the same degree of kinship. However, if the inheritance comes from a descendant, a devise (through a will), or a gift from an ancestor, only relatives who are blood-related to that specific ancestor are entitled to inherit from the estate.

Unborn Heirs

The law recognizes the right of representation, where descendants of a deceased heir can inherit as if the parent is alive. These include posthumous children, who are treated as if they were alive when the parent died.

Non-U.S. Citizen Heirs

Oklahoma law allows non-citizens to inherit just as citizens do. The non-citizenship of a relative does not prevent a capable person from succeeding under these provisions.

Heirs Guilty of Murdering the Decedent

As per Oklahoma statutes, individuals convicted of serious crimes, such as murder or abuse of a vulnerable adult, are prohibited from inheriting from their victim or receiving any related benefits.

Does Oklahoma Impose Inheritance and Estate Taxes?

Estate and inheritance taxes are forms of taxation applied when property is transferred after death. An estate tax is imposed on the estate itself. It is taken from the total value of the deceased person’s assets before they are passed onto the heirs. In contrast, an inheritance tax is levied directly on the estate beneficiaries. Oklahoma does not levy either of these taxes. As of 2023, 12 states and the District of Columbia enforce an estate tax, while six states have an inheritance tax. Maryland is unique in that it imposes both.

In 2001, the landscape of state taxes underwent a notable shift due to the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act. Before this federal law, all 50 states and the District of Columbia had an estate tax. The federal state tax system allowed a credit that offset estate taxes up to 16 percent of the estate’s value. However, the 2001 federal law phased out this credit by 2005 and replaced it with a less beneficial deduction to the states. 

Legal Resources Related to Inheritance Law in Oklahoma

Navigating inheritance law is simpler with the right kind of support. Thankfully, Oklahoma has various resources available for anyone with inheritance concerns, from clinics for American Indian property matters to organizations offering free legal advice and guides. Let us take a quick look at these vital resources and how to contact them for assistance with inheritance issues.

American Indian Wills Clinic

The American Indian Law and Sovereignty Center, through its American Indian Wills Clinic at Oklahoma City University School of Law, is a key resource for tribal citizens in Oklahoma dealing with inheritance issues. Under the guidance of a faculty clinician, law students at the clinic provide wills and estate planning services, focusing on those owning a trust or restricted property. 

These services are crucial in ensuring property transfers align with the landowner’s intentions, thereby reducing unnecessary government involvement in land distribution. Individuals seeking guidance on these matters can contact the clinic via email at americanindianwillsclinic@okcu.edu.

Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma

The Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma ensures that low-income individuals and seniors have equal access to legal services. This non-profit 501(c)(3) organization offers free legal aid without retainer fees. Its attorneys and paralegals handle civil and non-criminal cases, including those that involve inheritance matters. LASO emerged in 2001, uniting Legal Aid of Western Oklahoma and Legal Aid Services of Eastern Oklahoma, Inc. 

To apply for legal assistance at any LASO law office, please call 1-888-534-5243. To contact the LASO Administration, its new office (as of June 22, 2020) is located at 3800 N. Classen Blvd., Suite 230, Oklahoma City, OK 73118. The phone number is (405) 557-0020.

Oklahoma Bar Association

The Oklahoma Bar Association provides valuable resources for individuals dealing with inheritance issues. It offers Oklahoma Free Legal Answers, a service where you can ask legal questions online and get free advice from volunteer attorneys. This initiative is facilitated by the OBA, the Oklahoma Supreme Court Access to Justice Commission, and the American Bar Association. Also available are brochures and videos on various legal topics. 

In addition, the OBA has created a Pro Se Guide for individuals representing themselves at the United States District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma.

For questions or further assistance, the OBA can be reached by:

  • Phone: 405-416-7000 or 800-522-8065 (toll-free)

  • Mail: P.O. Box 53036, Oklahoma City, OK 73152, or

  • By visiting its office at 1901 N. Lincoln Blvd., Oklahoma City, OK 73105

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