The Guide to Intestate Succession in California

Intestate succession refers to the process under California inheritance laws that details what happens to a person’s estate assets when that person dies without a last will and testament. California’s inheritance laws are straightforward and dictate how a loved one’s estate assets will be distributed after they pass without a will.

Unlike a last will and testament or trust, which can be challenged or contested, California’s intestate succession laws cannot. That being said, if you have a claim against an estate separate and apart from what you may receive under the California inheritance laws, you may pursue that to try and recover your claim in addition to what you might receive under the intestate succession laws. You would be best-served to retain a probate litigation attorney to advise you as to what your rights and best course of action are.

What is the definition and meaning of intestate succession?

Intestate succession specifically refers to the order in which spouses, children, siblings, parents, cousins, great-aunts/uncles, second cousins twice removed, etc. are entitled to inherit from a family member when no will or trust exists. For example, in California, if a married individual passes away without a will, their community property – i.e. assets acquired during the marriage that belong to the marital estate, such as earnings, income, etc. – will be distributed to their surviving spouse. If the individual also has separate property, one-half of that separate property will be distributed to the surviving spouse if the couple has only one child, with the child entitled to the other half of the separate property. The surviving spouse will get one-third of the separate property if the couple have two or more children, with the children getting the other two-thirds.

What assets are subject to intestate succession?

California’s intestate succession laws apply to your deceased loved one’s estate assets. What does that mean? Estate assets include all the property owned by your loved one at their death other than property held in a trust (e.g. revocable living trust), property that is held in joint tenancy (e.g. real estate or bank accounts), or property that has a beneficiary designation (e.g. IRA’s or life insurance).

What are typical intestate succession problems?

At RMO Lawyers, we see most problems and conflicts occurring between the biological children of the decedent, and a step-parent, i.e., when the decedent was married more than once. In these situations, emotions often dictate, especially early on, after your loved one has just passed. Many times the children have difficulty accepting that the new spouse, their step-parent, should be entitled to anything, especially where there was friction between them and the step-parent, or the marriage was new. As you can imagine, a variety of familial situations and relationships can cause create difficult emotional conditions that need to be addressed.

The Laws of Intestate Succession for Heirs and Beneficiaries according to California Probate Code 6400-6455

The State of California has clear intestate succession guidelines and processes for property distribution to a decedent’s spouse, children, siblings, and living parents. Here are the basics:

  • If the decedent created no will or trust and was married with no children: All assets are distributed to their surviving spouse.
  • If the decedent created no will or trust and was not married but has children: All assets are distributed to the decedent’s children.
  • If there is more than one child, then assets are shared equally amongst the living children. If a child predeceased the decedent, that child’s children will take that child’s share.
  • If the decedent created no will or trust and was married with children: Decedent’s community property assets are distributed to the surviving spouse. Decedent’s separate property is distributed to the surviving spouse and the children, one-half to each if only child and one-third to the surviving spouse and two-thirds to the children if more than one child.
  • If the decedent created no will or trust and has no spouse or children: All assets go to the decedent’s kin or heirs based the closest relationship, e.g. first parents, then siblings, then cousins, etc..
  • If the decedent created no will or trust and has no heirs or kin: All assets escheat to the state.

If this seems a bit complicated to understand that’s because it is, just give us a call and let us know your situation. We’re happy to answer your questions, and the consultation is free: (424) 320-9444

Can I contest or dispute intestate succession?

The short answer is no, you cannot contest or dispute intestate succession. That being said, there are claims that can be made that might help you obtain more than your intestate share of the estate. We help clients analyze these issues every day.

Do I need an intestate succession litigation attorney near me?

We recommend finding an experienced probate litigation attorney familiar with the county probate court in the county where the decedent lived. For example, if the decedent lives in Los Angeles, we recommend working with a probate litigation lawyer in Los Angeles. A Los Angeles probate litigation lawyer will generally be more familiar with the Los Angeles Superior Court Probate Division, versus an out of state attorney.

Have questions? Call now. It’s totally free.
(424) 320-9444


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About RMO Lawyers, LLP

RMO LLP provides personal and efficient inheritance dispute services to individual and institutional clients. The firm’s attorneys focus on probate litigation involving contested trust, estate, probate, and conservatorship matters. Serving California and Texas, with offices in Los Angeles, Pasadena, Orange County, San Diego, Fresno, the Bay Area, Dallas, and Houston. For more information, please visit

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About the Author

Scott Rahn, Founding Partner

Scott Rahn resolves contests, disputes and litigation related to trusts, estates and conservatorships, creating a welcome peace of mind for clients. He represents heirs, beneficiaries, trustees and executors. He utilizes his experience to develop and implement strategies that swiftly and efficiently address the financial issues, fiduciary duties and emotional complexities underlying trust contests, estates conflicts and probate litigation.

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