When a person dies, their estate often must go through probate, which is the legal process of distributing their assets. Multiple parties are typically involved in these proceedings, including:
- Heirs — The heirs are the family members who would be legally entitled to receive the deceased person’s assets if they died without a will.
- Beneficiaries — The beneficiaries are the people who are entitled to receive the deceased person’s assets according to a will.
- Creditors — The creditors are the people or businesses to whom the deceased person owed money.
- Personal representatives — The personal representative is the person who is appointed by the court to administer the estate. The personal representative is often the executor named in the will, but they can also be an administrator appointed by the probate court.
Each party has different rights and responsibilities in an estate, and it is important to understand these roles before moving forward with any legal action.
Who Are the Heirs of the Estate?
The heirs of an estate, also known as the “heirs-at-law,” are typically determined by the state’s intestate succession laws. If someone dies without a valid will, intestate succession laws determine who inherits the estate.
Generally, the estate will first go to the surviving spouse and children. If there is no surviving spouse, children, or grandchildren, the estate will go to the deceased person’s parents. If there are no surviving parents, the estate will then go to the deceased person’s siblings. Finally, if there are no surviving siblings, the estate will go to the deceased person’s next of kin.
Who Are the Beneficiaries of the Estate?
The beneficiaries of an estate are the individuals or organizations named in the will as being entitled to receive assets from the estate.
In many situations, the named beneficiaries of the estate will be the same as the heirs-at-law. However, people can choose whoever they want to be their beneficiaries, including charities, non-family members, and distant relatives.
It is also important to note that the beneficiaries named in the will are not necessarily entitled to receive equal shares of the assets. The distribution of property is typically based on the wishes of the deceased and can be influenced by a number of factors.
If the deceased person did not leave a will, then the assets will be distributed to their heirs according to the laws of intestate succession.
Who Is Called an Executor of the Estate?
An executor of the estate is a person appointed by a deceased person’s will to administer the estate. This includes distributing the estate assets according to the deceased person’s wishes, as laid out in their will.
The executor is responsible for carrying out the will’s instructions and ensuring that the deceased person’s debts are paid. They may also be required to sell property in order to raise funds to pay off debts or to distribute assets to beneficiaries. In some cases, the executor may also be responsible for managing the deceased person’s financial affairs during probate.
If the deceased person did not have a will, the court will appoint an “administrator” to handle the estate. Just like the executor, the administrator is responsible for administering the estate and ensuring that all debts are paid, and all assets are distributed according to state intestacy law.
Both executors and administrators are known as the “personal representative” of the estate.
What Is Included in an Individual’s Estate?
An individual’s estate includes all of the “probate assets” that they owned at the time of their death. This includes individually-owned property that does not have a co-owner with a right of survivorship or a designated beneficiary.
Some assets will automatically transfer to a joint owner or a beneficiary upon death. Property that is held in a trust is also not included in a deceased person’s estate.
Property that is not part of an estate in California includes:
- Jointly owned assets with survivorship rights, such as bank accounts and real estate
- Investment accounts, such as retirement and brokerage accounts, that have a named beneficiary or a joint owner with the right of survivorship
- Death benefits from life insurance policies with a beneficiary designation
- Property that is in a trust
Can I Contest a Will or Probate?
Yes, heirs, beneficiaries, and other interested parties can contest a will or its probate if they have a legal justification to do so.
Undue influence is one of the more common grounds for challenging a will. Undue influence occurs when someone exerts pressure on the testator to such a degree that the testator’s free will is overridden, and they are forced to act against their own best interests.
Duress is another common ground for challenging a will. Duress takes place when the testator is threatened with force or violence unless they sign the document.
Likewise, for a will to be considered valid, it must be executed by a person of sound mind. If it can be shown that the testator lacked the capacity to understand what they were doing, the will can be invalidated.
Fraud, forgery, and coercion are also grounds for challenge, as is failure to comply with certain legal formalities. The court may invalidate the will if any of these can be proven. However, succeeding in a will contest is often challenging, so you should discuss your situation with an experienced probate litigation attorney as soon as possible.
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About RMO Lawyers, LLP
RMO LLP serves clients in Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Orange County, San Diego, Kansas City, Miami, and communities throughout California, Florida, Missouri, Houston, and Kansas. Our founder, Scott E. Rahn has been named “Top 100 – Trust and Estate Litigation” by SuperLawyers, Trusts and Estates Litigator of the Year, and Best Lawyers in America for Litigation – Trusts and Estates. For a free consultation, call (424) 320-9444 or visit: https://rmolawyers.com