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The Importance of a Last Will and Testament: A Look at California Inheritance Laws

If you are like a surprising number of Californians you may not have prepared a last will and testament. The reality is that there are very few adults in the state of California who should not have a will. In the grand scheme of things, the importance of a will cannot be underestimated.


Where Your Property Goes Upon Your Death


Even if you have only a small amount of property, you undoubtedly have ideas where you want your assets to go when you pass away. The only way in which you can be certain that your assets are distributed in the manner you desire is to have a will.


If you do not have a will prepared, the laws of the state of California dictate how your assets will be distributed upon your death. California law distributes your assets to specific family members upon your death if you lack a will. Technically, this is known as intestate succession.


Although you may want your property to go to the family members set forth in California statutes if you lack a will, that may not be the case. For example, you may have friends who you desire to give your property when you die. Without a will, that will not happen.


If you have no surviving family members, and no last will and testament, the results of dying without a will are even more significant. Under California law, your property goes to the state.


Under California law, this is the manner in which your assets are distributed without a will:

  • If you have children, but no spouse, your children get everything
  • If you have a spouse, but no children, parents, or siblings, your spouse gets everything
  • If you have parents, but no spouse, children, or siblings, your parents get everything
  • If you have siblings, but no spouse, children, or parents, your siblings get everything
  • If you have a spouse and children, your property is divided between them
  • If you have a spouse and parents, your property is divided between them
  • If you have a spouse and siblings, but no parents, your property is divided between them

Person in Charge of Your Estate


Another important benefit of having a will is that you are able to designate who you want to oversee the affairs of your estate upon your death. Under the provisions of California law, this individual is called an executor. In the absence of a will, a court appoints someone to do this for you after you die.


Certainly, if you are like most people, you want to select the person who will attend your affairs when you pass away. You don’t want someone appointed by the court to undertake this role for you.


Funeral and Burial Arrangements


Technically, you do not need to have a will to delineate what you want done in the way of a funeral and burial. You can convey your desires to your loved ones in other ways. However, a will places the force of California law behind your funeral and burial wishes.


You can include within a will specific details of what you want to have happen to your remains after your passing. The executor appointed in your will is charged with making sure these wishes are carried out for you. Even if one of your family member desires to attempt to alter your wishes, because they are enumerated in your will – and with the assistance of your executor – even a family member cannot sidetrack your desires.


Wrongful Death in California


Even if you currently do not have much in the way of assets, and think writing a will is unnecessary, you do need one. Every day people in California are killed because of the negligence of someone else. If you ever end up in the unfortunate situation that you die in an accident of some sort caused by another party, what legally is known as a wrongful death lawsuit in California might be brought on behalf of your estate and heirs.


Each year in California, settlements are negotiated and judgments are won in wrongful death cases that result in the payment of a considerable amount of money. If your estate ever ends up in that position and you have no will, the laws of the state of California dictate how the proceeds from a wrongful death settlement or lawsuit judgment are distributed. With a last will and testament, you can make certain that any such settlement or judgment will be distributed in the manner you desire.


The Importance of Legal Assistance


There is a myriad of options available to you through which you can obtain a standard form will. These products are essentially fill in the blank documents. You can find these both in the brick and mortar world and online.


The reality is that a good many standard forms end up having defects and issues. Indeed, these standard forms can have problems that end up rendering a will unenforceable. In other words, if you were to utilize a standard form will that had defects, your estate very well may end up in the position of you having made no will before you passed away.


You need to keep in mind that all states have their own laws governing wills, estates, and the probate process. In some instances, standard form will may not meet muster as far as California law is concerned.


If you lack a will, you should schedule what is known as an initial consultation with a California estate planning attorney. As estate planning lawyer will provide answers to your questions and evaluate your situation. Typically, a California estate planning attorney charges no fee for an initial consultation.

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