Who Inherits What When a Person Passes Away?

August 14, 2014

Californians may be concerned about what happens to an estate when they pass away or when a parent or spouse dies. There are also people concerned about who has rights to an inheritance they have received.

One piece of information that must be established is whether a person who has passed away has a will in place. If so, estates will typically be administered in accordance with the wishes expressed in the will. However, there are challenges to a will and other issues that can come up and present additional complications which must be explored on an individual basis.

If there is no will, assets will typically be distributed to the closest relative. This could include a spouse, parent, sibling or children. If a person is survived by only a spouse, only children, only siblings or only parents, they will generally be the ones to inherit everything. Most people, however, have multiple parties who will receive a portion of an estate. In California, for example, a spouse typically receives all community property, while the rest of a person’s assets will be divided among other family members.

Divorce can dramatically affect an inheritance. If one spouse receives an inheritance, that is typically considered separate property. However, if that inheritance is spent on community property, it could be divided between spouses in the event of a divorce. Prenuptial agreements and wills can protect an inheritance if one spouse dies or a couple gets divorced, but updating a will that could be affected by a divorce (whether it affects the person leaving or receiving an inheritance) can be a very good idea.

Children and grandchildren do not necessarily have a right to inherit a parent’s property. If there is no will in place, an estate will generally be divided among family members. This can be crucial for people to remember and might be a good reason to draw up a will and update it whenever a child or grandchild is born.

Many people have an over-simplified understanding of what happens to a person’s assets after he or she passes away. This can mean that they leave behind a messy estate or make unintentional decisions to omit or include certain parties. Working with an attorney to better understand inheritance laws and rights can be crucial for people who have received, expect to receive or plan to leave an inheritance.

Source: FindLaw.com, “Inheritance Law and Your Rights,” accessed on Aug. 13, 2014

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