January 24, 2014

Change to Intestate Succession Law

California Legislature - Sacramento, CA
If a person does not write a will, they die intestate and his or her estate is distributed to their heir(s). This is known as intestate succession. Of note, the term "heir" is essentially next of kin. For example, the heirs of a widow would be her children, if she had any.

One reason why it is prudent to write a will, is to prevent the application of intestate succession. Adherence to the laws of intestate succession are rather strict. If the heir was loved or loathed by the decedent, this person will inherit their estate. Still, California law was recently amended to prevent the ostensible unfairness of intestate succession in one instance. AB-490 modified the law of intestate succession in case of an absent parent. See Prob C § 6452. This law went into effect on January 1, 2014. What spawned this law was the following case and its unfortunate result.

Estate of Shellenbarger (2008) 169 CA4th 894    

Lesley Shellenbarger was the son of Clifford Shellenbarger and Laura Barnes. Lesley was conceived while Clifford and Laura were married but during Lesley's pregnancy, Clifford left Laura. Lesley died intestate in April 2005. Probate proceedings commenced in Ventura County thereafter.

Since Lesley passed away without a spouse, child, etc., Laura was appointed administrator of Lesley's estate. During the probate proceeding, Lesley filed a petition to determine entitlement to Lesley's estate, arguing that since Clifford had abandoned his son, Clifford should be barred from inheriting from Lesley's estate as an intestate heir. See Prob C § 11700. 

The trial court and later the court of appeal ruled that Clifford's abandonment was not fatal to his claim. Since Clifford was married to Laura at the time of Lesley's birth, Clifford was the natural parent of Lesley. Furthermore, since Clifford's parental rights were not terminated during Lesley's minority, he remained the natural parent and therefore, per the old version of Prob C § 6452, qualified as an intestate heir. This allowed Clifford to receive a portion of Lesley's estate. This despite the fact that Clifford had neither fully paid child support nor seen his son during his 42 years of life.

Still, as consistently stated in various court opinions "the Legislature remains free to reconsider the matter and may choose to change the rules of succession at any time." Estate of Griswold 108 Cal.Rptr.2d 165, 191 (2001). The California Legislature subsequently did take it upon themselves to alter an intestate succession law. Prob C § 6452 was modified such that a parent that basically abandons their child is barred from inheriting from the child as an intestate heir. This modification to Prob C § 6452 would have reversed the outcome in Estate of Shellenbarger because Clifford had abandoned his son Lesley. Thus in a hypothetical world that adhered to the modified version of Prob C § 6452, solely Laura, instead of Laura and Clifford, would inherit from Lesley's estate.