How Probate Court Works in California

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How Probate Court Works in California

When a loved one dies, you have a lot to handle. You may have to notify family and friends, request a death certificate, arrange a funeral, and write an obituary. With these immediately pressing concerns, it’s easy to forget about longer-term projects like probate.

However, probate is one of the most crucial legal requirements after someone dies. In almost all cases, an estate must go through probate before it can be passed on to the decedent’s heirs. Even if your loved one has a will, probate will be necessary.

But what does probate actually entail? The process can be confusing and overwhelming, especially when you’re still mourning the loss of a family member. Here’s what you need to know about probate in California so you’re prepared for what to expect.

What Is Probate?

Probate is the legal process by which assets are transferred from a deceased person to their legal heirs. The process is overseen by probate courts, a part of the judicial system that only handles matters related to the legal rights of people who are not considered legally competent. This includes issues like:

  • Administering estates
  • Confirming and executing wills

When someone passes away, they can no longer speak for themselves about how they want their assets distributed. Probate courts are responsible for ensuring the decedent’s last wishes are respected if they were documented or following standard inheritance laws and procedures if they were not. 

The Role of Probate Court in Estate Administration

The exact role of the probate court in estate administration depends on the circumstances around the decedent’s death. Three primary factors affect what probate must do regarding an estate:

Presence or Absence of a Will

If the decedent had a legally binding will, they are considered “testate,” and the probate process is usually relatively short. The court is responsible for confirming the will’s authenticity and passing the estate’s management over to the executor it names

However, if someone dies without a will, they are considered “intestate,” and probate can take longer. The court must assign an administrator to handle the assets without a will. This administrator then needs to identify and notify the decedent’s heirs, which include surviving spouses, parents, siblings, children, and grandchildren. If there are no surviving close family members, the administrator will search for other relatives until someone is found to inherit. 

The administrator will then divide the estate between the surviving family members according to California’s standard inheritance laws. The search can take months because it is difficult to prove a negative, like the lack of living family members. The assets may be frozen until the investigation is completed, preventing even the identified heirs from using or accessing their inheritance.

Size of the Estate

Most estates will go through the standard probate process. This includes:

  • Submitting a copy of the decedent’s death certificate and any estate planning documents to the court
  • An examination of the papers to confirm their veracity
  • The appointment of an administrator or executor
  • Identification and appraisal of the assets in the estate
  • Notification of creditors and beneficiaries
  • Distribution of the assets

However, particularly small estates could be eligible for simplified proceedings. In California, the threshold for simplified procedures is a total value of $166,250 or less, not including real property. In these cases, it may not be necessary to go to court at all. 

Instead, you can file a writ of affidavit to transfer the assets into your name if no one else is eligible to inherit. This is only rarely possible in California, so it’s still important to consult with an experienced estate administration attorney to determine if you’re eligible.

Contestation of the Will or Probate Decisions

No estate is immune from probate disputes. If someone disagrees with a will or how an estate is administered or executed, they can contest the matter in court. Common reasons for contesting an estate include:

  • Someone believes they should receive more of the estate
  • Someone thinks another person is receiving too much of the estate
  • The will may not be valid
  • Someone believes the decedent was unduly influenced or coerced when writing their will
  • A potential heir was disinherited or left out of the will, and they believe it was in error or unlawful

When this occurs, the court must schedule hearings to determine whether the contest is valid and how it should be resolved. During these hearings, all parties will present their arguments and evidence for how the estate should be divided. Contested estates can be tied up in probate for months or even years.

Reduce the Time an Estate Spends in Probate With Experienced Legal Counsel

Probate is time-consuming and often prevents beneficiaries from accessing the assets for long periods. While probate can rarely be avoided, reducing the amount of time an estate is tied up in court is possible. 

The most effective way to minimize probate is by drafting a comprehensive estate plan before you pass. Thorough plans include carefully worded wills that can withstand the court’s scrutiny. This prevents you from passing intestate, avoiding the necessity of assigning an administrator. It also makes preventing or resolving disputes during estate administration easier. An experienced attorney can help you write a will to stand up to whatever the future brings.

A skilled attorney is also the best way to reduce probate time when executing a loved one’s estate. Your attorney will guide you through the complexities of the probate process, ensure you file appropriate documents on time, and represent you if anyone files disputes. At CC LawGroup, we are prepared to help you with estate planning and administration alike. We have decades of experience with California probate law, so we understand the requirements and regulations inside and out. Learn more about how we can help you avoid extended probate battles by scheduling your consultation today.