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The death of a spouse is always a tragic event and can result in not only emotional but also financial uncertainty for the widow. While many assume that if their spouse dies, they will automatically inherit everything, in states like California, this is not always the case.

How do California Laws Work When a Spouse Dies?

When a spouse dies in Orange County, CA, property that was held by the deceased must first be divided into community and separate property. California is a community property state, meaning that assets and debts acquired by a married couple become part of their community property and are shared equally between them. Assets that were acquired before the marriage, however, remain separate property owned by each spouse individually.

In California, the surviving spouse is entitled to at least one-half of the community property shared between them as a couple. It will also be dictated by how property is held and what assets are subject to probate.

What Assets Are Not Subject to Probate?

When someone dies, their estate will pass through probate. However, some assets are not subject to probate and will pass to beneficiaries outside the probate process. These include

  • Any life insurance proceeds
  • Any real property owned in joint tenancy or with the right of survivorship
  • Any property that has been transferred to a living trust
  • Any funds in an IRA, 401(k), or other retirement accounts
  • Any securities that are being held in a transfer-on-death account
  • Any vehicles that are being held by a transfer-on-death registration
  • Any bank accounts with payable-on-death clauses

Any property held jointly will go directly to the surviving individual. Assets with payable-on-death terms, retirement accounts, and life insurance benefits will go directly to the designated beneficiaries. Assets held in a living trust will be distributed in accordance with the terms of the trust agreement by the trustee. None of these assets will be affected by a will or intestacy rules.

Consequently, if property and accounts are held jointly by spouses or a surviving spouse is the beneficiary of a living trust or payable-on-death account, these assets will go directly to them.

Where Does a Will Come Into Play?

If there is a will, the deceased spouse’s share of their community property and their separate property will be distributed according to the terms of the will.

When a spouse dies without a will, California’s intestate succession rules will determine how their property will be distributed. Intestacy laws set out a specific order in which family members are able to inherit the decedent’s property and assets.

  • If there is a surviving spouse but no surviving children, parents, siblings, or nieces or nephews, the surviving spouse will inherit all of the deceased spouse’s community property and separate property.
  • If there is a surviving spouse and surviving children, the spouse will inherit all the community property and half of the separate property, with the other half going to the children.
  • If there are no children, but the decedent’s parents are still alive, then the surviving spouse will inherit all the community property and one-half the separate property, with the parents inheriting the remaining half.
  • If there are surviving children and no spouse, the children inherit everything, with parents and then siblings next in line.

The death of a spouse is always an emotionally fragile and financially fraught time for the surviving family, especially for the surviving spouse. Navigating probate can be confusing, expensive, and time-consuming. This is why it is essential for individuals to have a well-conceived estate plan in place to ensure that property is distributed according to their wishes after death and lessen the burden on the surviving family members.

Getting Your Questions Answered by Our Orange County Estate Planning Lawyers

If you have lost a spouse, you must understand your rights and what assets you are entitled to. Speaking with an experienced Orange County, CA estate planning attorney can help you navigate this time with peace of mind.

At the Law Offices of Roshni T. Desai, we have dedicated our practice to families wanting to ensure that their loved ones are properly taken care of after they pass. If you have questions about what you are entitled to after the death of a spouse, call our offices at 714.694.1200 or contact us via our website contact form to schedule a free consultation.

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