When a person dies without a will, California law specifies an order of precedence for individuals entitled to act as executor or administrator of the estate. A surviving spouse or domestic partner has top priority over all other persons, including the children or parents of the deceased. Obviously, this assumes the spouse or domestic partner has a legally recognized relationship. In some cases, California courts will recognize a “putative” spouse or domestic partner-someone who has a good faith belief they were the deceased’s spouse or domestic partner despite the failure to obtain legal recognition.
A recent California Court of Appeals decision illustrates the confusion that can arise when a person claiming to be a spouse or domestic partner fails to support his or her claim. This case is discussed here for informational purposes only and should not be construed as a complete statement of California law on this subject.
Estate of Langman
Kirk Langman and Michael Greene had been friends since they both attended elementary school in the 1960s. From the late 1980s forward, they lived together on-and-off, with Greene moving in with Langman permanently in 2008. In 2010, they moved into a house in Pebble Beach paid for by Langman’s father and owned by Langman.
Langman died in September 2011 after collapsing in his home. Thereafter, Langman’s father asked a probate court to name him administrator of the estate, as his son did not leave a will. Greene objected, claiming he was Langman’s domestic partner-or, in any event, his putative domestic partner-and therefore entitled to priority appointment as administrator.
According to Greene’s testimony before the probate court, he and Langman signed a domestic partnership declaration after moving in together in 2008. Greene said he did not previously have an intimate relationship with Langman, although they did after signing the declaration. Greene said the domestic partnership was Langman’s idea and that, as far as Greene knew, Langman had taken care to ensure the declaration was properly filed with the state.
In fact, no such declaration was ever recorded. Unlike marriage, which requires a license from a county clerk, a domestic partnership need only be registered with the California Secretary of State. (Same-sex marriage, of course, was not permitted in California until June 2013.) By the time the probate court tried Greene’s objection, he acknowledged there was no registration on file. Still, he said he had a good-faith belief he was Langman’s domestic partner at the time of his death, and therefore he should be appointed administrator as Langman’s “putative domestic partner.”
The probate court and the Court of Appeal rejected Greene’s claim. As the Court of Appeal explained, the available evidence showed Greene and Langman “were merely friends and roommates and not domestic partners or putative domestic partners.” The court pointed to a number of inconsistencies in Greene’s statements after Langman’s death, which damaged his credibility before the probate judge.
Protecting Your Partner’s Interests
A committed couple need not enter into a legal marriage or a domestic partnership. But if one partner wishes the other to oversee his or her estate, it is imperative to prepare a will, trust or other estate planning documents that override the defaults established by state law. An experienced California estate planning attorney can advise you on the best option for your relationship and situation. Contact the Law Office of Scott C. Soady in San Diego today if you have any questions.