Who Are The Legal Heirs in California’s Intestate Succession Law?

Heirs are individuals who are entitled by law to inherit a portion or the entire estate of a person who died “intestate”, meaning, someone who passed away without establishing a legal last will and testament.

Heirs vs Beneficiaries – What’s the difference?

Strictly speaking, not all heirs inherit property. The legal term “heir” is used to describe a direct descendant who is entitled to inherit property in the absence of a will. The correct term used to describe someone who inherits property as designated by a will is called a “beneficiary”.

If we go by the above definitions, it is correct to say that “not all heirs are beneficiaries” as in the case of a decedent’s children who are intentionally left out of a will. The statement “not all beneficiaries are heirs” is also true. For example, a friend or a non-relative may be entitled to receive property as specified in the decedent’s will.

But if a person dies intestate, friends and non-relatives are not entitled to the decedent’s property because they are not “heirs”.

What are the types of heirs?

1. Heirs-at-Law

Surviving spouses and children are first to qualify as direct heirs-at-law in California’s Intestate Succession which orders the priority of heirs on how closely they are related to the decedent. Grand children would qualify as direct heirs only if their parents are deceased.

2. Collateral Heirs

The decedent’s parents, siblings, grandparents and other relatives are next in line from the heirs-at-law to inherit property in case there are no surviving spouses, children or grandchildren. They are considered “collateral heirs” because they could only claim inheritance if there were no living direct descendants.

3. Unknown Heirs

In cases where a decedent has no known heirs-at-law, California requires that a special notice be run in the newspaper so that individuals who believe that they are related to the deceased can come forward and be recognized. They will undergo a court process to establish heirship which would then entitle them to inherit the decedent’s property. If no heirs are identified, the decedent’s assets and property would go to the state.

Breaking Down Heirship in Children

The simple term “children” can mean different things in establishing legal heirs especially now that blended families are the norm. Below is a quick breakdown of how children are recognized as heirs-at-law in California in the absence of a legal will.

1. Natural Children

In California intestate law, the biological children of a deceased person, regardless of the marital status of their parents, have the strongest rights to inheritance because they are direct bloodline descendants.

2. Adopted Children

Legally adopted children have the same inheritance rights as biological children do in the absence of a will or estate plan.

3. Step Children

In California, stepchildren can inherit from an estate if there is no will provided that there are no other close relatives alive, e.g. children, parents, nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, grandparents, etc.

4. Children Adopted by Another Family

A child given up for adoption severs the legal ties with its birth parents and can no longer qualify for inheritance under intestate succession laws.

5. Children Adopted by a Stepparent

In California, children adopted by a stepparent may still inherit property from their birth parents.

6. Foster Children

In the absence of a will, foster children don’t inherit property from foster parents as “children”.

Beneficiaries and Estate Planning

These guidelines on legal heirs only apply to persons who pass away without a will. Laying these out, hopefully gives you an idea of how the court would decide on your behalf. You can, however, purposely distribute your assets and property to your intended beneficiaries by doing some estate planning.

Start taking action with your estate planning by booking your free consultation with our team at Crider Law.

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