An estate plan is intended to comprehensively dispose of a decedent’s property, so that nothing is left over for the probate courts to claim and subject to the laws of distribution. In California and other jurisdictions, though, it is not uncommon for individuals to pass on without putting into place the wills, trusts and other testamentary documents necessary to ensure that the distribution of their wealth and assets is made clear. Because of this, the states of the nation have enacted intestate succession laws that designate how heirs may inherit from the decedents.
A person who dies without a will is said to have died intestate; this is where the terminology comes from. If a person is married how and how much of their property will pass to their spouse will depend upon the classification of the property (community, separate, etc.) and whether the decedent had children. The portion of their property that does not pass to their spouse will pass to their children.
A person without a spouse or children may have their property pass up to their parents if their parents survive them. If the decedent has no spouse, children or surviving parents then the decedent’s property may pass to their siblings. Special rules may apply for half siblings and others who are not of the same degree of kinship to the decedent.
In general, assets pass up and down a decedent’s family tree until such time an heir is found. In the event that no such heir exists, then the individual’s entire estate may escheat or pass to the state. To avoid this process and to see one’s intentions fulfilled, individuals should prepare an estate plan that sets forth testamentary intentions.