In California, when someone dies without a will or trust their property is distributed according to the state's intestacy laws. If there is a surviving spouse, it all goes to him or her. If not, it goes to children in equal shares, with the share of any deceased child going to their children. If there are no children, the estate goes to parents, then to siblings and then to more distant relatives, in that order. Thus, a person who dies without a will or trust runs the risk that their assets will go to people they wouldn't have chosen themselves, including relatives to whom they haven't spoken in decades.
There are other good reasons to make sure you have an estate plan in place when you die. When a person dies intestate it greatly increases the risk that their children and heirs will fight over the estate. When these fights go to court, they get expensive, and the cost of defending the estate is paid out of the estate. Protracted litigation over an intestate estate can drain the estate of assets that could have gone to the heirs. On the other hand, if the decedent left clear instructions in a will or trust, there is less to fight about. The heirs may not like the decisions you made in your estate plan, but they are your decisions to make.
An estate plan can also confirm promises that would be unknown to family members and unenforceable without a will or trust. You may have promised one child that he or she will get a particular family heirloom, or that you would help pay for a grandchild's college tuition. If those promises are not spelled out in an estate plan, the only person who knows about them may be the person to whom you made the promise. That creates a situation ripe for family conflict.
Fortunately, preparing an estate plan is usually a relatively simple process. An experienced California estate planning lawyer can make sure you have a solid plan in place that will reduce the risk of family conflict.
Source: Huffington Post, "7 Nasty Things That Can Happen If You Die Without A Will," Ann Brenoff, May 13, 2016