Under Arizona’s intestate succession statutes, who is entitled to the Decedent’s property is largely a function of how potential heirs are related to the Decedent and how each category of relationship ranks in the statutory pecking order.
In the absence of a properly draft and executed Will or Trust, dying “intestate” triggers a situation in which claims against the Decedent’s estate must be validated and settled by the courts, in a vacuum formed by ignorance of the Decedent’s wishes.
It is not an exaggeration to state that intestacy creates a potential free-for-all (in fact, we use that very phrase in our web page describing Trust, Probate and Estate Litigation). However, putting aside legal hyperbole, the potential chaos of dying intestate is tempered somewhat by Arizona laws that provide two hierarchies: one setting forth a structure for who will manage and distribute the Decedent’s assets, and the other governing “intestate succession” – i.e., who gets what, based on competing relationships to the Decedent.
Managing the Process
In cases of intestacy, Arizona law (A.R.S. § 14-3203) defines who has the right to serve as the “personal representative” of the Decedent’s estate.
Roughly summarized, here is the priority among people who, by law, in the absence of a will, may be entitled to serve in that capacity:
- The Decedent’s surviving spouse
- The Decedent’s other heirs (described below).
- The Arizona Department of Veterans’ Services (if the Decedent was a veteran of the armed forces).
- Forty-five days after the death of the Decedent, any creditor (except for a funeral director who has the Decedent’s remains).
- The public fiduciary of the Decedent’s county.
After their appointment by the court, the personal representative (PR) is bound to carry out duties that are similar to those of a conventional PR who was named in a Decedent’s will. (See our popular handout, “Arizona Personal Representative Handbook.”) The PR will first pay all valid claims against the estate (e.g., bills, debts, and other creditor claims) and then distribute the remaining assets – according to state law contained in Title 14 of Arizona Revised Statutes.
Before we get into the distribution of assets, it is important to know that not all assets are affected by intestate succession laws. Examples of “non-probate” assets, which are not the responsibility of the PR, include:
- cash held in a payable-on-death account
- life insurance proceeds carrying valid beneficiary designations
- motor vehicles titled with a co-owner or subject to transfer-on-death registration
- property held in a trust
- real estate held in joint tenancy (or community property) with rights of survivorship or subject to transfer by a beneficiary deed
- retirement account proceeds carrying valid beneficiary designations
- securities held in a transfer-on-death account
Under Arizona’s intestate succession statutes, who is entitled to receive the Decedent’s non-probate property is largely a function of how potential heirs are related to the Decedent and how each category of relationships ranks in the statutory pecking order.
If the Decedent (“Blake,” for the purposes of this discussion) died with:
- Children but not a spouse, Blake’s children inherit everything.
- A spouse but no children (or any other descendants), Blake’s spouse inherits everything.
- A spouse and descendants of Blake and that spouse, Blake’s spouse still inherits everything.
- A spouse and descendants of Blake, at least one of whom is the product of a different relationship, Blake’s spouse inherits half of Blake’s separate property, but none of Blake’s half of their community property. (Blake’s descendants inherit half of Blake’s separate property and all of Blake’s share of the community property co-owned with the current spouse.)
- Parents but no spouse or descendants, the parents inherit everything.
- Siblings but no spouse, descendants, or parents, Blake’s siblings inherit everything.
- No living relatives, Blake’s probate assets become the property of the State of Arizona.
Have a Will
If you or someone you care about does not have a will, or if their will was executed long ago, wading through the aforementioned priority of intestate succession should provide adequate motivation to create at least a simple will.
A will can be a relatively simple document, and it need not be expensive. See our rate schedule for singles and for couples and families, and call today to schedule an estate planning appointment (480-345-8845).