We began our series on the estate representative with a blog on the essential responsibilities and first steps you have to take when you are the estate representative. We continue by looking at your first step, how you find the heirs.
I must find the heirs. What is an heir?
If we look to Black’s law dictionary, we find that by common law, an heir is any person who stands to inherit. However, there is also civil law that divides heirs into different groups. A “testamentary heir”, or a beneficiary, is one you find in a will. It is anyone named as the successor to an estate in a will. If there is no will, there are still heirs. They are heirs by law.
What are the steps to finding heirs?
- Look at the will – If there is a will, read it. The entire purpose of a will is to dispose of assets upon death. The will gives you directions. It tells you who receives which asset. These heirs are the beneficiaries.
- If there is no will or there is a problem with the will, look to state law- California provides a specific list of heirs through intestate succession. First, If there is a surviving spouse, community property will pass directly to the spouse. Non-community property (separate property) passes to the surviving spouse and any surviving children. The exception is when the deceased and his spouse had a legal separation. In that instance, the spouse does not receive the separate property portion. If there is no surviving spouse, the estate is divided equally among the surviving children. If no spouse and no children, then to the surviving parents. If no spouse, no children and no parents, then to the siblings. If no spouse, children, parents, or siblings, then to the grandparents. If there are no surviving grandparents, then one needs to look to nieces, nephews, aunts, and uncles. Whew!
- Finally, you will want to look at the other estate documents. There are times when you can find instructions to find the heirs in alternative documents like living trusts or retirement accounts.
If all this sounds confusing, well, it can be, especially when there is no will or when there is a problem with the will. If you are the estate representative and you are confused, your best bet is to call an attorney to help you sort it all out.