There are various ways you can inherit from a decedent’s estate: As a beneficiary under a will or trust, as a designated death beneficiary (i.e., insurance policies, retirement plans, etc.), as an heir, or as a surviving joint tenant. All ways, however, require that you must first survive the decedent.
Sometimes the persons involved either die simultaneously, i.e., too close in time to determine clearly who survived the other, or die very close in time to each other. This typically occurs in accident scenarios.
How does California law handle such scenarios? The answer depends.
Did the decedent have estate planning documents? If so, then what does the decedent’s will or trust say? With married couples, their will(s) or trust(s) may provide that either one spouse or neither spouse is presumed to have survived the other.
If the decedent was married, any community property owned by the deceased spouse (other than in a trust) is distributed as if each spouse had survived the other spouse, unless it can be proven by clear and convincing evidence that either spouse survived the other.
Similarly with assets owned as joint tenancy with right of survivorship, the estate of each deceased joint tenant receives an equal share of the asset, unless it can be proven by clear and convincing evidence that a joint tenant survived the other.
A different rule applies to any assets that pass by way of intestacy, i.e., where the decedent died without a will. That is, when it can be established by clear and convincing evidence that one person survived another person but the period of time is less than 120 hours (5 full days), then California law presumes that each such person survived the other.
For example, consider a parent who dies intestate, is survived by two children, but one child dies only 4 days after the parent’s death, i.e., less than 120 hours. California law presumes that the deceased child did not survive the mother. Accordingly, the sole surviving child estate receives the entire parent’s intestate estate.
A beneficiary who survives long enough to inherit, however, might still die before he or she had received complete distribution of his or her inheritance. Accordingly, a trust may provide for distributions to alternative beneficiaries. Otherwise, without such planning, the undistributed inheritance becomes part of the deceased beneficiary’s estate, where it passes accordingly to the beneficiary’s will or according to intestacy (to the heirs). This possibility is one reason why everyone needs a will even if they have a trust.
A probate of the beneficiary’s estate may also be required as a result of the undistributed inheritance. No probate is required if the beneficiary’s estate passes entirely to his or her surviving spouse or if it has a gross value under $150,000.
An interesting real world example involves a married couple whose death certificates say they each died on the same day. They owned a residence as community property by right of survivorship worth less than $300,000. As a result, each deceased spouse’s estate was under $150,000 in total gross value and no probate was required.
The legal and factual analysis associated with the distribution of a decedent’s estate varies from case to case. Anyone confronting the above issues should consult a licensed California lawyer before reaching any conclusions.