What Does the Probate Process Look Like in California?

Losing a loved one is difficult and usually requires time for the decedent’s survivors to process the loss. However, during this time of grieving, someone close to the decedent must also begin the process of closing the estate. In many cases, an estate in California can only be considered closed after going through probate.

Before we dive into the legal process, it is worth noting that not every decedent must have their estate go through probate. Assets held in trusts or owned in a particular way (such as joint tenancy for real estate) do not usually count as part of the probated estate. Additionally, only California estates worth at least $184,500 (as of 2023) must go through full probate.

Step 1: File the petition and receive authority from the court to act as executor or administrator.

If probate is necessary for a loved one’s estate, the executor must file a petition with the court in the decedent’s last county of residence. The death certificate and the decedent’s will should also be filed at this time. If there is no will or the will did not name an executor to oversee probate, the court must appoint an administrator to assume the duties. The court will set a date for a hearing, usually 30–40 days from the petition filing.

Step 2: Form the accounting infrastructure for the estate.

Once an executor or administrator has been named at the initial hearing, this representative must begin making a log of the estate assets. They will also need to place values on each asset—perhaps with the help of a professional appraiser. While the estate is being probated, the representative must also maintain the assets and take steps to preserve their value.

  1. Notify creditors and heirs.

Much of a representative’s obligations involve sending notices to the right people and organizations. Everyone named in the will or otherwise eligible under state law to inherit something should be notified of the estate holder’s death. Certain creditors may need to be contacted directly; otherwise, notices must be published in a local newspaper advertising the hearing to potential creditors. Other entities the representative may need to contact include the decedent’s bank, Social Security Administration, and IRS.

  1. Pay final taxes and other expenses.

One thing you can be almost sure of during probate—people will need to get paid. The representative often must file one last federal income tax return for the decedent. Medical bills and funeral costs are common expenses the representative must handle. Creditors have up to four months after the representative is named to submit claims.

  1. Distribute assets to beneficiaries and heirs.

After the final expenses have been paid, it may finally be time to give the estate’s assets to the new rightful owners. This usually comes after the representative presents the court with a complete accounting of the estate that shows almost all actions taken between the decedent’s death and the payment of final expenses.

The entire process should take at most a year if the decedent does not owe estate taxes, the representative does not contest any claims made by creditors, and no survivors contest the estate plan or their inheritance. Probate is typically not an especially arduous process, but a California attorney’s help is strongly recommended.

Can You Avoid Probate?

Generally, there are ways for most Californians to limit the time their estate needs to spend in probate or eliminate the need for probate altogether. Through a combination of asset protection and strategies, you and your loved ones might enjoy a streamlined, simple process of receiving inheritances after someone’s death.

However, this is much easier said than done. The best way to ensure your loved ones avoid probate while protecting the assets you worked so hard to earn is to consult an experienced California estate planning attorney. Our team will do the hard work upfront so you can live out your golden years in peace and security.