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What Happens To Community Property If My Spouse Dies?

community property california death

Understanding California Community Property After a Loss

When a loved one passes away, it’s a time of grief and change. Amidst the emotional challenges, many people also face practical questions, especially when it comes to shared belongings. If you’re wondering about what happens to community property in California after death, you’re not alone.

Understanding what happens to this community property after the death of a spouse is crucial. This is true for both legal and money reasons. If you’re a spouse who is still alive, you might want to know what your rights are to this property. Or, you and your spouse might be planning for the future. Either way, understanding the rules can help you make good choices and ensure your wishes are followed.

Quick Summary:

  • Things you get during marriage are considered community property.  This includes things like paychecks, a house, or retirement savings.. This means each spouse owns half of it.
  • Normally, when a spouse dies in California and there’s no will, the surviving spouse keeps their half of the community property. There’s a law called Probate Code section 6401 that explains this.
  • If there’s no will, California’s intestate succession laws determine inheritance. Usually, the surviving spouse gets all community property when their spouse dies. But for things owned separately by the deceased spouse, who gets them depends on if there’s a will. Other family members like children, and/or children are from a different relationship can get a share of the property.
  • Prenuptial and postnuptial agreements can alter default inheritance rights. If valid and fair, they can override state laws on inheritance, but they must meet legal requirements to be enforceable.
  • Protect community property with tools like wills, trusts, Spousal Property Petitions, and keeping separate property distinct. Proper planning ensures assets are managed and distributed as desired.

What is Community Property?

Community property refers to the assets that a married couple owns together in California. This includes everything you both get or owe during your marriage. In California, if you get these things while married, they’re usually considered community property and owned by both spouses equally:

  • Income
  • Bank accounts
  • Real estate
  • Personal property
  • Retirement accounts
  • Debt

According to
California Civil Code § 760, anything you and your spouse acquire while you’re married is considered community property. This means both of you have an equal share in it, whether it’s money earned or items bought.

What Happens to Community Property in California After the Death of a Spouse?

Losing a spouse is a tough and emotional time. Amidst the grief, many people in California have questions about what happens to the things they both own.

Understanding what happens to community property in California after the death of a spouse can help ease some of the worries during a difficult time. The surviving spouse usually keeps their share, but it’s important to be aware of the laws and plan ahead to ensure your wishes are followed.

Here’s what happens to the community property after one spouse passes away:

Surviving Spouse Keeps Their Share

The surviving spouse usually gets to keep their share of the community property. So, if you and your spouse own a house together, the surviving spouse still owns half of it even after their spouse has passed away.

Community Property Laws

California has specific laws that guide what happens to community property after a spouse’s death. According to California law, each spouse has an equal claim to the community property. This means that both spouses share ownership of these assets.

Rights of the Surviving Spouse

Even after a spouse passes away, the surviving spouse has rights to some of the community property. California’s Probate Code, section 6401, says that the surviving spouse has rights to a portion of the deceased spouse’s estate, especially if there’s no will.

Planning Ahead

It’s always a good idea to plan ahead. Having a will or estate plan can help make sure your share of the community property goes to the people or causes you care about. In California, couples can also change some community property into separate property through a written agreement, as allowed by California Family Code § 850.

What are the Inheritance Rights of Surviving Spouses Whose Spouse Died Without a Will?

When someone dies without a will, it’s called dying “intestate.” This means there’s no written document saying who gets their property and assets after they pass away. In this situation, the court will use the state’s intestate succession statutes to determine which of the decedent’s heirs will inherit their estate.

In many states, including California, the surviving spouse has specific inheritance rights when their spouse dies without a will. Here’s what usually happens:

Community Property

If you live in a community property state like California, the surviving spouse usually inherits all community property. This includes things that you and your spouse bought or earned during your marriage.

Separate Property

A separate property is a property that your spouse owned before marriage or received as a gift or inheritance during marriage. In California, the surviving spouse might inherit a portion of the separate property, but it depends on other factors like if there are children from another relationship.

What are the Effects of Prenuptial and Postnuptial Agreements on Inheritance Rights of Surviving Spouses?

Getting married is a big step, and some couples choose to create agreements before or after the wedding to decide how they’ll handle money and property. These are called prenuptial and postnuptial agreements. 

But what happens to these agreements when one spouse passes away? Prenuptial and postnuptial agreements can change the default inheritance rights that a surviving spouse would normally have under the law. Instead of following state laws about inheritance, the terms of the prenuptial or postnuptial agreement will determine how assets are divided.

It’s important to make sure that any prenuptial or postnuptial agreement is fair to both spouses and follows the law. If the agreement is one-sided or doesn’t meet legal requirements, it might not be enforceable.

What are the Estate Planning Strategies to Protect Community Property in California?

Planning for the future is important, especially when it comes to protecting what you own with your spouse in California. Here are some strategies to help you safeguard your community property through estate planning:

Write a Will

One of the simplest ways to protect your community property is by writing a will. In your will, you can say exactly who gets what after you pass away. This can help prevent disagreements among family members. This way, you can make sure your share of the community property goes to the people or causes you care about.

Create a Trust

Another helpful tool is setting up a trust. A trust is an estate planning tool where you can put your assets, including community property. Creating a trust can help manage and protect your assets, both now and in the future. By placing your property in a trust, you can make sure it’s managed and distributed according to your wishes, while also avoiding some of the lengthy probate process.

Consider a Spousal Property Petition

If one spouse passes away, the surviving spouse can use a Spousal Property Petition to transfer community property without going through probate. This can be a quicker and simpler way to make sure the surviving spouse gets ownership of the community property. This petition helps ensure that the surviving spouse retains ownership of their share of the community property, providing financial security.

Keep Separate Property Separate

Even though most things you get during marriage are shared community property, you each might also have separate stuff. This includes things you owned before you got married, gifts you get personally, or money you inherit. It’s important to keep these things separate and have proof of ownership, so there’s no confusion and they stay yours.

California Community Property After Death: How an Auburn Estate Planning Lawyer Can Help

Losing a loved one is incredibly tough, and dealing with legal matters can add more stress. That’s where our Auburn estate planning attorneys at Bottomline Lawyers Law Firm come in to help guide and support you. 

Our estate planning law firm can help you understand California’s community property laws and what happens to shared belongings when your spouse passes away. We’re here to answer your questions and explain your rights. With personalized advice tailored to your situation, we can help you make informed decisions and plan for the future. Knowing what happens to the things you’ve shared as a couple ensures your wishes are carried out, and your loved ones are taken care of.

Don’t let uncertainty add to your burden. Contact us today to schedule a free consultation and let us help you understand your options and guide you through the process.

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