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What are succession laws? 

State succession laws refer to state-specific statutes, regulations, and case law that govern various aspects of the probate process, including the validation and construction of wills, asset distributions, creditor rights, and resolving disputes. 

As a general matter, probate courts will not override a decedent's wishes when it comes to construing the will and ensuring that the proceeds of their probate estate are distributed to the intended beneficiaries. However, sometimes people die without a will, or the will may have certain deficiencies, and disputes may arise regarding the will or claims against the decedent’s estate. The following paragraphs discuss some of the matters that are subject to state succession laws. 

Validity of the will 

The court must determine that the decedent’s will is valid as part of the probate process. As a general matter, for a will to be valid, it must be dated, witnessed, and executed by a person of sound mind. However, the specific details and requirements (e.g., how many witnesses are required, whether the will may be signed electronically) are governed by state succession laws.

Intestate Succession 

Intestate succession laws are the “default” state laws regarding who will inherit a decedent’s property that is not bequeathed under a will. While these laws are most frequently used in situations where the deceased did not leave a will, they are also applicable in the following situations: 1) the probate court invalidated the decedent's will; 2) the decedent did not name a beneficiary for some of their assets; and 3) a specific beneficiary predeceased the decedent and the will did not name a contingent beneficiary. 

Interpreting ambiguities and resolving inconsistencies 

Sometimes it is uncertain what a specific provision in a will refers to. For example, if a decedent specifies that she wants to leave her favorite painting to XYZ Art Museum but is uncertain which painting was her favorite, the will would be ambiguous.

An inconsistency is where there is an apparent conflict between two or more provisions in the will. An example of an inconsistency would be where the decedent identifies a specific painting that should go to the XYZ Art Museum, but in another section of the will, she leaves her entire art collection to his daughter. 

Application to creditor claims 

As part of the probate process, the decedent’s creditors must be notified of the decedent’s death, and they are entitled to bring claims against the probate estate before distributions may be made to the beneficiaries. If they fail to bring their claims within a specific period, they can be barred from pursuing those claims later. Both the notice period and the time within which the claims must be brought are governed by state succession laws. 

State succession laws also govern the priority of creditor claims (i.e., who gets paid first out of various creditors). Furthermore, most states have exemptions limiting the amounts that creditors can claim against various classes of assets, such as vehicles, personal belongings, life insurance, and home equity. 

Dispute resolution 

When any of the above matters are implicated during the probate process, and should any disputes arise in those contexts, the probate courts will apply state succession laws to adjudicate and resolve any disputes.

Example: Linda, a widow, passes away and is survived by her sons, John and Mark. Her probate estate consists of $500,000 in various cash deposit accounts and two homes: one in New York valued at $1 million, and the other in Florida valued at $750,000. In her will, Linda provides that her two sons should have equal shares out of the cash accounts, and that her “primary residence” should go to John and the other home to Mark. Since the New York home is valued $250,000 higher than the home in Florida, each son wants to inherit the former. Because Linda spent an equal amount of time in each residence over the years, there is an ambiguity as to which of her homes was her “primary” residence. The probate court will apply state laws to interpret what a “primary residence” is, and therefore who should receive which home.

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