A couple looking at the types of inheritance laws in California.

3 minute read

What you need to know about California inheritance law

California inheritance laws can be difficult to understand, but we’re here to help! Keep reading to find out how California inheritance works.

Mitch Mitchell

Mitch Mitchell, @MitchMitchell

Product Counsel, Legal, Trust & Will

Dealing with end-of-life administrative processes can be a stressful and emotional time. After the death of a loved one, it can sometimes be unclear as to how the assets of the deceased will be distributed. And the process is only made more confusing due to the fact that each state has different laws with regards to asset distribution.

California has its own set of unique laws which you should be familiar with if you live in the state or are involved with a property owner in the state. Here, we’ll break down the California Inheritance Law to help you get a better understanding of how it works.  

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How California inheritance works

In California, the inheritance of assets after the death of the owner will depend on 2 factors: community property and probate assets. 

Community property

CA is a community property state, which means that all assets and income accumulated during a marriage (or domestic partnership) is considered community property unless otherwise specified by both spouses/partners as separate property. In other words, both spouses are treated as if they own the property equally, even if the asset is the name of one spouse only.

When property is deemed community property, the surviving spouse is the sole heir for 100% of the deceased’s community property assets, regardless of any legal arrangements (contracts, Wills, prior transfers) an individual made.

CA has essentially deemed all community property as jointly held assets, regardless of whether they are held in a single name. This means that they cannot transfer to anyone else without the express consent of the spouse.   

Probate assets

Probate is the process of legally transferring the assets of a deceased individual to the rightful heirs. Only assets listed under a deceased person’s individual name that do not automatically transfer to someone else will go through probate. Because community property does get transferred by statute, it is not considered a probate asset

Types of probate

Next, we’ll discuss the two types of probate: testamentary and intestate.   


Probate is called “testate” when the deceased had a valid Will admitted (proved) into court. In this case, the Will governs who inherits from the estate, and the deceased has the right to choose who inherits or disinherits the estate. 


When an individual dies without a Will, it is called “intestate,” which means that state law determines who inherits assets. For a full breakdown of intestate succession, read our guide here

Here is an outline of the the California Intestate Succession (inheritance) Law per some of the most common scenarios (deceased and decedent refers to the person who died):

Surviving Spouse: Inherits 100% of all community property always.

  • Spouse and one child (of deceased): 1/2 of Separate Property, child other ½

  • Spouse and two or more children (of deceased): 1/3 of Separate Property, children share 2/3

  • Spouse, no children and surviving parents (of deceased): 1/2 of Separate Property, parents other 1/2

  • Spouse, no parents and surviving siblings (of deceased): 1/2 of Separate Property, siblings other 1/2

  • Only Spouse (no children, parents, siblings, grandparents): 100% of Separate Property

Children: Inherit 100% of all property if no spouse

  • Spouse and one child (of deceased): 1/2 of Separate Property

  • Spouse and two or more children (of deceased): 2/3 of Separate Property. Children share equally of the 2/3 share.

Parents: Inherit 100% if no spouse and no children

Siblings: Inherit 100% if no spouse, no children and no parents.

Predeceased Persons: If any family member that would have an inheritance predeceased (died before) decedent and they had children, those children inherit predeceased person’s share.

  • Ex: Mom died and had 3 children, one Son passed previously with children of his own. His children (grandchildren to “mom”) inherit the deceased Son’s share.

Predeceased Spouse: If a spouse predeceased and had children not born to the decedent, and the spouse was not deceased by more than 15 years, the children of the predeceased spouse inherit 1/2 of the estate.

Navigating California inheritance laws can be tricky without the right help you need and a valid Estate Plan in place. At Trust & Will, we’re here to help you keep things simple. You can create a fully customizable, state-specific Estate Plan from the comfort of your own home in just 20 minutes. Take our free quiz to see where you should get started, or compare our different estate planning options today!

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