California presumes that every adult has the capacity to make independent decisions about how their estate should be distributed upon their death. For most Golden State families, gifts are typically bequeathed to a surviving spouse, children, and friends. However, not everyone has living relatives, and some decedents may not have relatives they believe need an inheritance.
Writing a will, forming a trust, and adopting a long-term strategy is often the only way to ensure that an estate’s assets are distributed the way the decedent intends.
The Problems With an Intestate Succession
A person who dies without a will, or any other estate plan, is said to have died intestate. When a California resident dies intestate, a probate court can exercise jurisdiction over their remaining assets. Under most circumstances, intestate succession prioritizes the deceased person’s closest living relatives. These could include:
- A surviving spouse
- Any surviving children
- The decedent’s parents
- The decedent’s siblings
If the probate court cannot identify an appropriate heir, a judge may escheat the estate’s assets. Escheatment refers to the state’s right to claim estate assets for which there is no living heir.
While some Californians might not have family—or may not wish for their family to receive an inheritance—few would prefer that Sacramento appropriate their life’s work.
Choosing an Heir Outside of the Family
Even if you have no preferred heirs, you could still prevent your estate from escheating by nominating alternate beneficiaries. An alternate beneficiary could be:
- A domestic partner
- A close friend
- A personal business
- A charitable trust
- A household pet
However, naming an alternate beneficiary poses some measure of risk. If you have no estate plan, a living relative—no matter how distant—could be entitled to your assets through the process of intestate succession.
Protecting Alternative Heirs With an Effective Estate Plan
An experienced California estate planning lawyer could help you protect your estate from uncertainty by explaining your rights and helping establish any of the following:
- A last will and testament
- An advance health directive
- A durable power of attorney
- A revocable living trust
- A charitable trust
- A 529 education plan
Every estate is different, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution to estate planning. Nevertheless, an estate plan remains the only effective way to protect an estate from uncertainty and escheatment.