Proving Heirship in California Probate

by Erika Johansen

When a person dies, his heirs may be entitled to a share of his assets. However, potential heirs must first convince the probate court of their relationship with the deceased. Those with specific questions about proving heirship in California should seek legal advice.

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When Heirship Applies

Heirship only comes into play when there's no legal document, such as a will or trust, that describes what is to happen to some or all of the deceased's property. In such cases, California law gives a surviving spouse rights to a portion of the property. After the spouse gets his share, the deceased's heirs will have inheritance rights over the remainder. Heirs are typically descendants of the deceased, such as children or grandchildren, but in the absence of descendants, the deceased's siblings and even elders may qualify as heirs.

Proving Heirship

To establish heir status, if necessary, a potential heir may file a petition in the Superior Court of the county where the decedent's property, in whole or in part, is located. Under California Family Code (CFC) Section 248, this petition must include the heir's basic information, a description of the property being claimed by the heir and, if known, the names and information of other potential heirs. It may also be helpful to include information evidencing the heir's relationship to the deceased, such as a birth certificate or other proof of lineage.

Contesting Heirship

Once the potential heir has submitted the petition, the court must determine its validity. Under CFC 249, any interested party with a possible claim to the property at issue has the right to dispute the petition. CFC 248.5 stipulates that the court must set a hearing; at this hearing, any interested party with a claim to the property can contest the petitioner's status as an heir or his rights to the property. Typically, it's the potential heir's responsibility to give possible interested parties adequate notice (via mail or publication in newspapers, for instance) at least 15 days before the hearing itself. The potential heir must present proof of adequate notice to the court unless the court chooses to release her from the notice requirement.

Determination of Heirship

If the court examines the petition and finds it valid, it will issue a decree confirming heirship. This decree basically serves as legal proof that the party who submitted the petition is an heir. The heir may then use the decree to establish his inheritance rights. If there are multiple heirs of equal status (for instance, multiple children of the deceased), they will receive equal shares of the decedent's property.