Under California law, the laws of intestacy control who inherits when a person dies without having prepared a valid will or trust. These rules can be complicated particularly as remote or even unknown blood relatives may have a claim to assets of the decedent’s estate. However, these long lost relatives often must prove up their entitlement to inherit from the decedent’s estate.
The California Probate Code has a procedure in place to determine who is entitled to inherit from the decedent as set forth under California Probate Code section 11700 et seq. Filing a petition under this section is particularly useful when there is uncertainty as to the actual heirs of the decedent’s estate.
If a petition is filed under California Probate Code section 11700, the petition must include support for the petitioning party’s claim that he or she is entitled to inherit from the decedent’s estate. This may include charts detailing the family relationship, copies of birth, death, and marriage certificates, census information, copies of obituaries, and other evidence which may support a person’s entitlement to inherit from the decedent’s estate.
In a recent case, Estate of Herzog, the Fourth Appellate District examined the evidentiary showing that is necessary for a petitioning party to prove his or her claim of entitlement to inherit a portion of the decedent’s estate. In Estate of Herzog, the decedent died without a will. The decedent’s nephew was appointed as the administrator of the estate. To finalize the administration of the estate, the administrator filed a final accounting and petition for final distribution. In the petition for final distribution of the estate, the administrator contended that the decedent’s closest living relatives were four nieces and nephews who would each be entitled to a one-fourth share of the estate. However, an heir search firm located a possible half-sister of the decedent. In response to the administrator’s petition, a petition to determine entitlement under Probate Code section 11700 was filed which requested a determination that the half-sister was the sole heir of the decedent’s estate.
In support of the petition, a declaration was filed by the attorney for the petitioning party which attached multiple documents, including birth certificates of both the decedent and the alleged half-sister. These birth certificates were in German, and the court expressed concern regarding whether the birth certificates were actually official records of Germany. Because the court ultimately could not verify the authenticity of these documents, the court determined that the alleged half-sister did not meet her burden of proving that she was entitled to inherit the decedent’s estate.
It is imperative that the documentary evidence used to support a petition to determine entitlement be authenticated as set forth under the California Evidence Code. Absent proper authentication of evidence, a court may determine that a person is not entitled to inherit based on insufficient evidence, as articulated in Estate of Herzog.
Lastly, to avoid the passage of assets to unknown or distant relatives, a person can create an estate plan which sets forth the disposition of his or her estate to specified beneficiaries. If the decedent in the Estate of Herzog had prepared a valid will or trust, the decedent’s intent as expressed in those instruments would have controlled the disposition of the estate. However, as the decedent died without a valid will or trust, multiple court proceedings were necessary in order to finalize the distribution of the decedent’s estate and confirm the proper heirs to the estate. The expense and delay of these proceedings could have been avoided through proper estate planning.