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What Happens to Personal Assets If There Isn’t a Will?

By Mary-Frances Walsh, 9:00 am on

Estate planning is something most Americans tend to put off, so it is no surprise that nearly half of U.S. adults do not have a will. But contrary to popular belief, the assets of a deceased person without a will do not go to the state. For some property, a will is unnecessary to transfer ownership upon death. For other types of property, state law specifies which descendants inherit the property.

Property Transferred Without a Will

Some financial accounts provide for transfer of ownership to a specific individual upon death. Life insurance, pensions, IRA’s and 401k accounts normally have the owner name a primary beneficiary to the balance at the date of the owner’s death. 

According to Sonoma County elder care professionals, property jointly owned with another person, such as real estate, a vehicle, or a bank account will often transfer to the remaining owner, if ownership is listed as “joint tenants with the right of survivorship”. 

Intestate Succession

If a person dies without a will, he or she dies intestate. All states have laws providing for whom the property will go to in these cases. For most states, including California, the order is as follows:

  • If there is a surviving spouse, the spouse receives the community property and shares separate property with children of the deceased
  • If there are no children, the spouse shares with surviving parents or siblings
  • If there is no spouse, children of the decedent are the next priority
  • If there are no surviving children, then to grandchildren
  • If there are no grandchildren, then the decedent’s surviving parent or parents
  • If parents have predeceased the decedent, brothers and sisters are the next priority

In these cases, a probate judge will be required to distribute the property according to state law. Evidence that a decedent wanted the property distributed to another, even hand written evidence, will rarely persuade a probate court judge. So if a senior truly desires property to be inherited in a different manner than state law provides, having a will executed is vital to carrying out those wishes.

In addition to making end-of-life plans, it’s also important to discuss long-term care options with your senior loved one. While your parent or relative may be in good health, having a plan in place in the event of an accident, illness, or simply old age will help prevent frustration and stress later on. To learn more about our services, including dementia and Alzheimer’s care in Sonoma County, please call us at (707) 843.4368. We’re here 24/7 to answer questions and discuss care options.