Many people think that if they die while they are married, the law dictates everything they own goes directly to their spouse or children. They’re thinking of state rules that apply if someone dies without leaving a will. In legal jargon, this is referred to as dying “intestate.” In California’s case, the specifics will vary depending on the type of property held and the number of children you have, if any. However, the general rule is that your spouse will receive a certain share and the rest will be divided among your children.
Now that may seem like, “So far, so good,” right? Your spouse is getting an inheritance and so are the kids. But wait. Here are some examples of how the intestacy laws can – and do – fail many common family situations.
First off, if both parents of minor-aged children die intestate, then the children are almost always left without a legal guardian. Kids won’t automatically go to a godparent, even if that’s what everyone knew the parents had intended. Instead, a court will appoint someone to be the children’s guardian. In such situations, the judge may not make the decision that you, as a parent, would have made. In fact, sometimes the judge appoints the last person you would have wanted to have custody of your children.
It’s important to note that when it comes to asset division, in most cases, state intestacy law presumes that a family consists of a husband, wife, and their natural-born children. But, that’s not the way all families are structured, and things can become legally complicated for those other families quickly.
According to Wealth Management, one analysis counted 50 different types of family structures in American households – 50! Almost 18% of Americans have been remarried, and through adoption and stepfamilies, millions of children are living in blended families. The laws just haven’t kept up, and absurd results often occur for these types of families if they’ve relied on intestacy as their estate plan. For example, stepchildren that you helped raise (but didn’t legally adopt) may end up with no inheritance, while a soon-to-be-ex-spouse may inherit everything from you.
Of course, with proactive estate planning, you can control your assets and essentially eliminate the risk of these crazy results.
Also, keep in mind that intestacy provides no asset protection or preservation benefits. Without any protections in place, an estate’s assets are vulnerable to creditors, lawsuits, and others who may claim entitlement to the property. These claims would take precedence over the statutory requirements for inheritance. In other words, the family won’t be first in line; they’ll be last. They’d only be able to inherit the scraps and leftovers.
The best way to safeguard and pass along what you’ve worked so hard to build is to do your own estate planning rather than leave things to the laws of intestacy. Protect yourself, your family and your assets by talking to a qualified estate planning attorney today.
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