California’s probate code is constantly changing. In recent years, legislators have taken steps to modernize the Golden State’s inheritance laws. However, while California law now codifies the rights of everyone from domestic pets to civil partners, unmarried couples remain largely unprotected.
The Importance of Estate Planning for Committed Couples
Couples today often prioritize compatibility. Californians of all ages are now waiting longer to tie the knot, often living together for years before making a legal commitment. According to some reports, the decision to delay marriage—whether for personal, practical, or spiritual reasons—likely underlies a years-long decline in divorce rates.
However, even if waiting to marry can have clear advantages, California’s probate code can make protecting the interests of a domestic partner surprisingly difficult. In the absence of any valid estate plan, the Golden State’s probate courts have no choice but to fall back on intestacy statutes. These statutes exclusively privilege close blood relations.
The Perils of an Intestate Succession
If a person dies without a will, a revocable living trust, or any other form of estate plan, they are said to have died intestate.
When adjudicating intestate successions, California probate courts refer to a strict legal formula that privileges close blood relations. Under most circumstances, the only potential beneficiaries in an intestate succession are the deceased person’s legal relatives.
These could include any of the following:
- The decedent’s children
- The decedent’s parents
- The decedent’s siblings
Even if a live-in partner has proof of a long-lasting and legitimate relationship, the probate court cannot legally accommodate an unrelated third party in proceedings. In fact, the deceased person’s nieces, nephews, and second cousins are more likely to benefit from an intestate succession than a long-term boyfriend or girlfriend.
Protecting an Unmarried Partner With an Estate Plan
While intestate succession privileges close relations, California law presumes that every adult of sound mind has the capacity to establish an estate plan.
Ways to Protect the Rights of a Long-Term California Partner
- Naming a boyfriend, girlfriend, or another partner as a beneficiary in your last will and testament
- Delegating the medical and durable power of attorney to protect your physical and financial autonomy
- Establishing a revocable living trust with your partner as an heir
- Bequeathing lifetime gifts to reduce your tax obligations
- Revising your existing beneficiary designations