When someone dies without a will in California, a probate court will distribute their assets to their closest living relatives. Sometimes, the court’s decision can leave stepchildren without an inheritance. If you have stepchildren you want to provide for after you die, you should make estate arrangements to ensure they receive your legacy. 

Protecting your stepchildren's legacy

California Courts, Stepchildren, and Intestacy

A person who dies without a will is considered to have died intestate. When an intestate case goes into probate, a California judge will distribute the decedent’s assets according to a defined hierarchy:

  • Surviving spouse or surviving children
  • Parents, if they are alive
  • Siblings, or any nieces or nephews if a sibling is predeceased
  • Grandparents
  • Aunts, uncles, or cousins
  • Stepchildren of a predeceased spouse

In other words, stepchildren often stand to inherit nothing from an intestate estate. Only in certain, limited circumstances can stepchildren claim priority. Sections 6402 and 6402.5 of the California Probate Code provide that stepchildren may claim an inheritance if the decedent had no children of their own, and if their spouse died years earlier.

Taking Care of Stepchildren Through Estate Planning

California’s intestacy laws only apply to people who die without a will. If a Californian has stepchildren they wish to provide for, they can do so through estate planning by:

Drafting an enforceable will.

A will is a simple mechanism to bequeath an inheritance to loved ones. However, wills are still subject to probate, and when assets are subject to probate, they can be taxed, claimed by creditors, or otherwise publicly contested.

Giving lifetime gifts.

Sometimes it can be beneficial to gift an inheritance while still alive. An individual may choose to help their stepchildren purchase a home or finance their education. Lifetime gifts also have the benefit of reducing the value of an estate, thereby lessening any potential wealth or inheritance taxes.

Designating beneficiaries.

Stepchildren can be named as beneficiaries of life insurance policies or payable-upon-death accounts.

Creating a trust.

Trusts are among the most flexible estate planning mechanisms. Any assets transferred into a trust become non-probate assets. Trusts have an additional advantage: they can be conditional, meaning that any funds or assets placed into one may be disbursed only under certain circumstances such as when a stepchild turns 18 or needs money for college.

Do You Need To Speak With An Attorney About Estate Planning?

If you need to speak with an experienced estate planning lawyer please contact us online or call us directly at 800.756.5596 to first register for one of our free, informative seminars. Your attendance will qualify you for a special discount for our estate planning services should you decide to make a free appointment at the conclusion of the seminar and choose to proceed with us. We proudly serve clients throughout California with offices in Torrance, Newport Beach, Orange, Woodland Hills and Pasadena.


Philip J. Kavesh
Nationally recognized attorney helping clients with customized estate planning guidance for over 40 years.
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