Did you recently lose someone close to you? If so, you might have heard the term “probate” and are wondering what it could mean for you.
Probate is a legal procedure that facilitates fair asset distribution, debt settlements, and finalization of your loved one’s affairs. Tackling the probate process requires a close understanding of California probate laws. Without professional guidance, you could encounter unnecessary delays, potential disputes, or errors that affect your inheritance.
The Law Offices of Young Wooldridge, LLP team understands this is a difficult time for you. We believe you deserve not only a proficient legal advocate but also a compassionate and responsive ally as you forge ahead. Our estate planning attorneys are here to provide all of this and more.
Contact The Law Offices of Young Wooldridge, LLP today for a consultation with a California probate lawyer. Let us help you through the complex process of probate administration while you focus on healing and honoring your loved one.
What Is Probate in California?
In California, probate is the process by which a deceased person’s estate is administered. This process involves confirming the will’s validity, appointing a representative to manage the estate, appraising the deceased’s assets, and paying off debts and taxes. After these steps are complete, the probate process wraps up with the distribution of remaining assets to beneficiaries.
What Is Part of the Probate Estate?
In California, the probate estate generally includes all assets owned solely by the decedent at the time of death and not assigned to a designated beneficiary. This includes assets such as:
- Real estate
- Personal property
- Financial accounts
- Business interests
- Debts owed to the deceased
Common examples of assets that are not part of probate estates include:
- Life insurance policies
- Retirement accounts
- Assets held in some trusts
- Assets owned jointly or communally with the right of survivorship
These assets pass directly to designated beneficiaries or surviving co-owners upon the owner’s death.
Do All Estates Require Probate?
No. Not all estates require probate in California. For instance, probate is unnecessary for estate assets with designated beneficiaries (for example, life insurance policies and retirement accounts), assets in living trusts, and assets owned jointly or as community property with the right of survivorship. Additionally, smaller estates valued at $184,500 or less can sometimes bypass probate with a simplified process called the “small estate affidavit procedure.”
What Is California Probate Law Regarding Wills?
Does a will have to be probated in California? The California Probate Code provides specific guidance regarding the creation and interpretation of wills. Specifically, the law says a will is valid if the document meets the following criteria:
- It is in written form, either typewritten or in the testator’s (creator’s) handwriting.
- It is signed by the testator or another person in the testator’s presence and under their direction.
- It is witnessed and signed by at least two people who saw the testator sign or acknowledge the will and understand the nature of the document they are signing.
State probate law also covers will contests, setting out the terms, deadlines, and procedures for challenging a contested will. Will contests might involve disputes about the testator’s mental capacity at the time of the will’s creation, allegations of undue influence, and objections to the appointment of the personal representative. Additionally, the law outlines the rights of beneficiaries and heirs regarding probate, such as the right to receive notice of imminent probate proceedings.
What Are the Responsibilities of an Executor or Personal Representative?
An executor is a person a testator names in their will to carry out the terms of the will after the testator dies. If a person dies without a will or does not name an executor, the court will appoint a personal representative or administrator to handle the decedent’s estate. While these roles are similar in responsibility, the key difference lies in the fact that the decedent chooses an executor, while the court appoints a personal representative.
The responsibilities of an executor or personal representative include the following:
- Initiating the probate process by filing a petition with the probate court
- Informing the decedent’s heirs, beneficiaries, and creditors of the start of the probate process
- Creating an inventory of the decedent’s assets and arranging to have them appraised
- Managing, preserving, and taking control of estate property during probate
- Paying outstanding debts and tax obligations of the estate from the estate assets
- Distributing remaining assets to beneficiaries upon settling all debts and taxes
Valuing an Estate During the Probate Process
Valuing an estate is essential to determine fair market values for the decedent’s assets. The typical steps for valuing an estate include:
- Identifying all of the deceased’s assets that are subject to probate
- Arranging professional appraisals for assets like real estate, artwork, jewelry, and antiques
- Calculating the value of assets like financial accounts, stocks, bonds, and business interests
- Deducting the value of debts, estate administration costs, and other eligible deductions
- Filing an estate tax return, if the estate is large enough to incur estate tax obligations
What Is Formal vs. Informal Probate?
Some states use the terms “formal” and “informal” probate to differentiate between types of probate.
Informal probate is typically a simpler, faster, and less expensive process, appropriate for straightforward and undisputed estates. It involves less court supervision and often does not require a court hearing. Formal probate is a more involved process for large, complex, or disputed estates. Formal probate is court supervised and typically requires at least one court hearing.
California does not distinguish between “formal” and “informal” probate. Instead, California allows for three types of probate proceedings depending on the size of the estate and other factors:
- Standard probate is the typical process for estates worth more than $184,500. It involves a court-supervised process that ensures the proper distribution of the decedent’s assets.
- Simplified small estate probate, for estates valued at $184,500 or less, is a simplified process involving a small estate affidavit procedure. It allows survivors to receive certain assets without going through standard probate by filing affidavits.
- Simplified spousal property probate is a process that surviving spouses or domestic partners can use to claim assets directly by filing petitions.
How Long Does Probate Take in California?
It depends. The length of the probate process in California varies depending on the size and complexity of the estate. According to the California Judicial Council, most probate proceedings take nine months to 1½ years to resolve. The process could take even longer if there are disputes among beneficiaries or complications such as tax issues or difficulties in selling property.
California Rules of Probate Procedure
California’s rules of probate procedure dictate the steps necessary for opening and completing the probate process. This begins with filing a petition with the probate court after a person’s death. Survivors can file probate petitions whether or not they have valid wills in their possession.
The executor or personal representative carries the responsibility of adhering to probate procedures. The probate process involves validating the decedent’s will, which must meet specific statutory criteria for admissibility in court. The executor must then:
- Inventory the deceased’s assets and have them appraised
- Notify creditors of the administration of the estate
- Settle any outstanding debts on behalf of the estate
- Distributing remaining assets to beneficiaries per the terms of the will or state intestacy laws, which prescribe what happens when someone dies without a valid will
How to Avoid Probate in California
There are several strategies for avoiding probate in California, including the following:
- Creating trusts
- Designating beneficiaries on retirement, life insurance, and bank accounts
- Holding property jointly or as community property with the right of survivorship
- Establishing a family limited partnership or a family limited liability company
- Giving away assets to loved ones while you’re alive
In California, smaller estates usually qualify for simplified procedures that allow you to sidestep full probate. Consult a California probate attorney today to discuss the best options for your situation.
What Are Common Probate and Estate Planning Disputes?
Common types of disputes that can arise during probate and estate planning include the following:
- Disputes over the interpretation of a will or trust
- Challenges to the validity of a will or trust
- Disputes over the appointment of an executor or trustee
- Disputes over the performance of an executor or trustee
- Disputes over the distribution of assets
- Disputes over the valuation of assets
- Disputes over undue influence or incapacity
- Spousal rights disputes
- Disputes among beneficiaries
- Disputes over omitted or disinherited heirs
- Guardianship or conservatorship disputes
- Breach of fiduciary duty claims
- Going through the probate process in California with a will or with no will
What Can a California Probate and Estate Administration Attorney Do?
Here are just a few of the ways a probate and estate administration lawyer in California could assist during the probate process:
- Preparing and filing legal documents
- Representing you in probate court
- Locating, securing, and valuing assets
- Facilitating creditor notifications and payments
- Preparing and filing estate tax returns
- Resolving estate and probate disputes
- Assisting with the sale of estate property
- Distributing assets to beneficiaries
- Advising executors or administrators on their legal duties
- Setting up and managing trusts
- Handling claims against the estate
- Interpreting wills and trusts
- Advising you on handling debts and liabilities
- Facilitating the final accounting and closing of the estate
Contact Our California Probate & Estate Administration Lawyer Today
You deserve peace of mind as you adjust to life without your loved one. Entrust your probate needs to The Law Offices of Young Wooldridge, LLP. Contact us today for a consultation with our Bakersfield probate lawyer, and let us support and guide you every step of the way.