A Quick Guide to Probate Laws in California


The loss of a loved one can be quite overwhelming. Notifying family, planning a funeral, and the grief take quite the toll on their own. If you are in charge of the execution of the deceased’s will, or if there was no will at all, you know that probate complications make the situation even more serious. Understanding the probate laws in California may help to ease some of the confusion of the situation.

Probate Isn’t Always Necessary

Some assets aren’t subject to probate laws because they transfer automatically if someone passes away. A common situation that doesn’t require probate is known as the “right of survivorship.” For example, if two people own a house as joint tenants and one passes away, the survivor owns the house. Payable or transfer on death bank accounts aren’t subject to probate law either. When someone opens one of these accounts, he or she fills out forms to designate the money to someone after death. The money then automatically goes to the beneficiary. Finally, living trusts don’t go through probate court until the assets not included in it exceed the state’s small estate limit.

You May Need To File Taxes

The state of California ended its inheritance tax in 1982. It does not have an estate tax, either. However, you may need to file other taxes on behalf of your deceased loved one. First, you’ll need to file the individual’s federal and state returns the next year. Next, if the estate had a gross asset gift value of more than $11.4 million, you’ll need to file a federal estate tax return. This is due within 9 months, but if you contact the IRS prior to the deadline, you’ll receive an automatic 6-month extension. Finally, a federal estate income tax return will be due on the following tax deadline.

A Valid Will Helps the Process

Execution of a valid will typically makes probate a much simpler, much faster endeavor. A valid will must include specific instructions about who receives what. Any estate valued at more than $150,000 must go through probate court but can do so more quickly with a will. If the estate is valued at less than $150,000, you can file an Affidavit for Transfer of Personal Property beginning 40 days after the deceased passed away.

If someone passed away without a valid will, the probate process may become much more complicated. The state’s intestate succession laws will determine who receives what from the estate. Typically, this means the estate is divided between a surviving spouse and children, but siblings, parents, grandparents, and other extended family members may also be included. If there are disputes regarding who should receive part of the estate, the court process is likely to become very drawn out.

Hiring a Lawyer Can Speed the Process

Regardless of whether your loved one had a valid will, navigating the probate court system in California can be complicated, especially during the grieving process. For this reason, you may want to consider hiring a probate lawyer. Probate attorneys know the ins and outs of probate law in the state, including how the procedure works, what forms you need to fill out, and how to handle possible complications. Hiring an attorney means you spend more time focusing on your family and less time worrying about court issues. A lawyer also protects you from liability if you make a mistake, and many attorneys do not charge upfront fees for probate cases.

Losing a loved one is an emotional time. Remember to take time for yourself before beginning the probate process. If you decide to hire a probate lawyer, look for someone who is licensed and has a strong reputation in his or her field. Keep these California guidelines in mind to help make the process easier.


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