Dying without a will is never a good idea. In California, like all states, there are laws governing the succession of intestate estates—that is, estates where the deceased failed to leave a will. The intestate succession law directs the distribution of property to your closest living relatives. But what if you have no living relatives or they fail to make themselves known to the probate court? In such cases your estate is “escheated” or transferred to the state as unclaimed property.
If a living heir appears within five years of the initial escheat, he or she may file a petition in court to claim your estate. After the five-year period expires, however, your estate becomes the permanent property of the State of California. And once a distribution is made to a claimant, it excludes any rival claims that may arise, as one recent California appeals court decision demonstrates.
Estate of Dickson
This case is discussed here merely as an illustration and should not be treated as a conclusive statement of California law on this subject. Alvin Dickson, Jr., died in 2009 without a will. At the time of his death no living heir had appeared to claim the estate, so it was escheated to the unclaimed property office of the California State Controller.
In September 2012, Kent Orr filed a petition in San Bernardino Superior Court to recover the estate from the Controller. Orr was Dickson's second cousin, once removed, and claimed to be his closest living relative. The court granted Orr's petition in an October 2012 order.
Two months later, another man, Reginald Watkins, appeared and claimed he was Dickson's first cousin. In fact, he said there were 17 living first cousins who all had higher priority to claim Dickson's estate than Orr, who was only a second cousin. Watkins said the Controller's office was aware of his competing claim but never informed him about Orr's petition in San Bernardino. Watkins therefore asked the court to reverse its order in favor of Orr and award the estate to the first cousins.
The court denied this motion. The judge said the Controller had no legal duty to inform Watkins about Orr's petition. Nor did any action (or inaction) by the Controller reasonably interfere with Watkins' ability to learn about the Orr petition. The Court of Appeals, which upheld the trial judge's decision, noted California's escheat law created a “first come, first served policy,” with respect to previously unknown heirs. Unless Orr deliberately misled the court about the existence of other unknown heirs—and the appeals court said there was no evidence of this in the record—his petition was validly granted.
It's unknown what Alvin Dickson's wishes were regarding his estate since he never left a will. This unfortunately led to litigation years after his death. To avoid a similar situation, you should always work with an experienced California estate planning attorney to prepare a will or trust specifying the heirs of your choice. Contact the Law Office of Scott C. Soady in San Diego today if you have any questions