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Do You Have A Rich Uncle? The Definition of “Legal Heirs” in California

A critical part of every estate plan is the ordered disposition of assets on death. Specifically, who are you going to leave your assets to when you are gone? Most people leave their assets to their spouse and children, or to other relatives, friends, and charities. But, if no designated beneficiary is alive at the time of your death, what then? Often, the default provision is to leave the remaining estate to your legal heirs. But what is the definition of “legal heirs” in California? And which relative gets priority?

Under California Probate Code section 6402, the following individuals are defined as “legal heirs,” in the order named:

Decedent’s issue (e.g., Decedent’s children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, etc.)
Decedent’s parents
Decedent’s parents’ issue (e.g., Decedent’s siblings, or if there are not any siblings, Decedent’s nieces and nephews)
Decedent’s grandparents
Decedent’s grandparents’ issue (e.g., Decedent’s aunts and uncles, or if there are not any aunts and uncles, Decedent’s cousins)
Decedent’s “next of kin in equal degree” (generally meaning more distant cousins)