Probate proceedings can be emotionally charged, even when nobody is making a claim against the estate. However, unexpected challenges can make the process even more difficult. While some disagreements among beneficiaries are not unusual, problems arise when strangers interfere, claiming they have a legitimate interest in the deceased person’s estate and assets. Sometimes, these estranged relatives and self-proclaimed heirs try to stake a claim in an estate, saying they have DNA evidence that proves they are entitled to an inheritance.
The Role of DNA in Estate Claims
The recent popularity of ancestry mapping services and mail-order DNA analyses has led people to make surprising discoveries about their families. While most of these revelations are not life-changing, some have the potential to disrupt, erode, or even destroy the relationships between friends and relatives.
California, like most other states, has laws governing how and when DNA evidence can be used in probate contests and other estate challenges. In general, a previously known sibling or child could be entitled to a share of an estate—but only if they meet certain conditions.
Under California Probate Code Section 6453, a person could be considered the “natural parent” to an illegitimate or unrecognized child if:
- A natural parent and child relationship was legally established under the Uniform Parentage Act.
- A court order was entered during the deceased person’s lifetime declaring parentage.
- Parentage was established by clear and convincing evidence that the parent recognized the child as their own.
- The parent did not recognize the child as their own, but clear and convincing evidence—such as a DNA test—establishes a parent-child relationship.
However, the courts strictly limit when DNA tests can be used to establish parentage. Under Probate Code Section 6453, genetic evidence—such as a DNA test—can only be considered by a probate court if such evidence was acquired during the parent’s lifetime.
This restriction serves several important purposes:
- It prevents frivolous and dishonest claims.
- It spares the recognized family the pain of exhuming a loved one to test a claim that may be false.
The Threat of Intestacy Proceedings
Any person with a legitimate interest in an estate can file a probate contest if they meet the criteria set by the California Probate Code.
If a previously unknown relative—such as a child, sibling, or grandchild—acquires compelling genetic evidence of a familial relationship during the decedent’s lifetime, they could be entitled to an inheritance under state intestacy laws. These laws are used to determine inheritances whenever someone dies with a will, trust, or other estate plan.
In the absence of an estate plan, the probate court will have to rely on an existing legal formula to decide how an estate should be disbursed. This formula broadly privileges close relatives such as a surviving:
- Child or children
If you do not have an estate plan, your family will not be able to influence how your estate is distributed. This means, someone who only realized they are related to you after taking a mail-order DNA test could seize your assets if they have a good attorney.
Protecting Your Family’s Legacy
Every adult resident of California who is of sound mind has the right to write a will, establish a trust, and make other preparations for the eventual dissolution and disbursement of their estate.
Since California law allows parents to disinherit children, siblings, and other relations, you could prevent a successful DNA-based estate challenge by:
- Writing a will which specifically disinherits the estranged or unknown relative
- Establishing a trust, which will protect your estate from outside scrutiny and could provide you with tax benefits while you are still alive
- Providing for the unknown relative with a small gift or other recognition of your relationship
If you have reason to believe your estate could be jeopardized by a DNA-based claim, you need to speak to an estate planning attorney. While writing a will can spare your loved ones from intestacy proceedings, it will not negate the need for probate.
Since probate courts are public courts, anyone can monitor challenges—meaning that any contest from an illegitimate child or unknown sibling has the potential to aggravate your loved ones, whether inside the court or out.
A revocable living trust or other novel estate planning instrument could be better suited to your estate and family situation. A revocable living trust, for instance, can:
- Protect your loved ones’ inheritances
- Shield your family from public probate proceedings
- Reduce or eliminate property taxes, estate taxes, and transfer fees
- Provide you with critical tax benefits and deductions while you are still alive
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.