Each state in America operates under one of two legal inheritance principles, either community property laws or common law, explains FindLaw. Community property laws generally grant each partner in a marriage a half-interest in property acquired during the marriage. Common law states rely on whose name is attached to deeds or titles to determine ownership.
Community property inheritance laws give each spouse a one-half ownership in any income and property acquired during the marriage, states FindLaw. Exceptions to this general guideline include items and property received before the marriage, anything received as a gift or inheritance, and property both parties specifically agree to keep separate. Spouses in community property states possess the authority to determine who inherits their half-interest in any property or items, but they can't give away the other spouse's half-share. Prenuptial agreements in these states may override the principle of community property. Nine states utilize community property principles to determine inheritance, although Alaska requires a written agreement.
Common law inheritance statutes do not automatically grant joint ownership to both spouses, notes FindLaw. Courts in common law states determine ownership according to whose name is attached to the property, or whose income purchased it. Common law protects surviving spouses from total disinheritance by granting them a specific share, usually one-third, of all property. Both common law and community property states often revoke a surviving spouse's inheritance rights after a divorce, but some states don't recognize divorce as a determining factor. Children and grandchildren generally have no legal right to inheritance, depending on the terms of a will.