It is a common scenario that many people dread: a loved one passes away without leaving a will. This situation, known as dying 'intestate', can add an extra layer of complexity to the probate process. As an experienced probate attorney serving California, I'm here to guide you through the complexities of intestate succession.  

Understanding Intestate Succession in California

When a person dies without a valid will, their estate is subject to intestate succession laws. In California, the probate code provides a default plan for distributing the deceased's assets. Typically, the distribution is based on familial relationships: spouse, children, parents, siblings, and so forth. However, the specific distribution depends on the family situation and the type of property involved.

The Role of the Probate Court

Without a will naming an executor, the probate court appoints an administrator to handle the estate. The court typically prioritizes close family members, starting with the surviving spouse or domestic partner, then children, parents, siblings, and so on. 

Once appointed, the administrator has a similar role to an executor in a standard probate process. They gather and inventory the deceased's assets, pay any debts and taxes and distribute the remaining assets according to intestate succession laws.

Intestate vs. Testate Probate

The main difference between intestate and testate (when there's a will) probate is how the estate's assets are distributed. In testate probate, the will dictates asset distribution. But in intestate probate, California law determines the distribution.

However, both processes involve similar steps: filing a petition for probate, appointing a personal representative, gathering and managing assets, paying debts and taxes, and distributing the remaining assets. 

Distribution of Assets in Intestate Probate

In California, the surviving spouse or domestic partner often receives the largest share of the estate. If there are surviving children, parents, or siblings, they may receive a portion of the estate based on specific rules in the probate code.

For example, if there's a surviving spouse and one child, the spouse receives half of the community property (property acquired during the marriage) and half of the separate property (property acquired before the marriage or received as a gift or inheritance), with the child receiving the remaining separate property. The rules can get more complex with larger families or multiple marriages.

The Importance of a Probate Attorney in Intestate Succession

An experienced California probate attorney can make the intestate probate process smoother and less stressful. They can help interpret and apply the intestate succession laws, assist in filing the necessary documents with the probate court, and guide the administrator through their duties. 

A probate attorney can also represent the estate in any disputes that may arise, such as challenges to the administrator's actions or disagreements among heirs about the distribution of assets.


Navigating intestate probate can be a complex task, especially during a time of grieving. It's essential to understand California's intestate succession laws and the probate process to ensure the deceased's estate is administered fairly and legally. 

While this blog post provides a broad overview of intestate probate, each case has its unique challenges. Hiring a qualified probate attorney in California can provide peace of mind and ensure all legal requirements are met.

If you are dealing with intestate probate or have questions about the California probate code, reach out today. My goal is to help make the probate process less daunting and more manageable, providing you with the guidance and expertise you need during this challenging time.

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