Wills, Estates, and Probate

Losing a loved one is a sad and difficult time for family, relatives, and friends. In addition, those left behind must often figure out how to transfer or inherit property from the person who has died.

To do this, you must usually go to court. And dealing with the courts and the property of someone who has died is very complicated. Sometimes, however, family or relatives may be able to transfer property from someone who has died without going to court. But it is not always easy to tell whether you need to go to court or qualify to use a different procedure.

This section will give you some general information to help you understand what your choices may be, but we still encourage you to talk to a lawyer to get specific answers about your situation. You can usually pay the lawyer’s fees from the property in the case.

To find a lawyer, click for help finding your bar association's lawyer referral service or call 1-866-442-2529.


What Is “Probate”?

Probate means that there is a court case that deals with:

• Transferring the property of someone who has died to the heirs or beneficiaries;
• Deciding if a will is valid; and
• Taking care of the financial responsibilities of the person who died.

In a probate case, an executor (if there is a will) or an administrator (if there is no will) is appointed by the court as personal representative to collect the assets, pay the debts and expenses, and then distribute the remainder of the estate to the beneficiaries (those who have the legal right to inherit), all under the supervision of the court. The entire case can take between 9 months to 1 ½ years, maybe even longer.
 

Deciding If You Need to Go to Probate Court and Whether You Can Use Simplified Procedures

You may or may not need to go to probate court to obtain title to property belonging to a dead person.  Figuring out if you have to go to probate court depends on many issues, like the amount of money involved, the type of property involved, and who is claiming the property.

And deciding if probate court is needed may also depend on the how the property is owned (the type of title ownership) or if there is some type of contract with beneficiaries. For example:

  • Type of Title Ownership:  : Sometimes all or some of a dead person’s property passes directly to the beneficiaries because of how the property is owned. So if the property was owned in joint tenancy, if it was community property with the right of survivorship, if it was a bank account owned by several people, or a bank account that is transferred to someone when the owner dies, then, in general, when the owner of the property dies, the property goes to the survivor. Keep in mind that even in these cases, the survivor may have to take legal steps to clarify his or her ownership of the transferred property.
  • Type of Contract:  Sometimes all or some of a dead person’s property does not need to go through probate to pass to the beneficiaries. This is because this property is a type of contract with named beneficiaries. Examples of this are life insurance that pays benefits to someone else other than the dead person’s estate, retirement benefits, death benefits, and trusts.

If the Person Who Died Left $150,000 or LESS

If you have the legal right to inherit personal property, like money in a bank account or stocks, and the estate is worth $150,000 or less, you may NOT have to go to court. There is a simplified process you can use to transfer the property to your name. The value of the property is based on what it was worth on the date of death —not on what the property is worth now.

  • Keep in mind, this process CANNOT be used for real property, like a house. If the person left $150,000 or less in real property, including some personal property, you may be able to use a form called Petition to Determine Succession to Real Property (Estates $150,000 or Less) (Form DE-310).  You will have to file the Petition with the court, obtain and file an Inventory and Appraisal (Form DE-160), and provide notice of hearing.  Talk to a lawyer to make sure you can use this simplified process in your case. Click for help finding a lawyer. 

To use the simplified process for transferring personal property
First, figure out if the value of the property (the estate) is worth $150,000 or less. To do this:

Include:

  • All real and personal property.
  • All life insurance or retirement benefits that will be paid to the estate (but not any insurance or retirement benefits designated to be paid to some other person).

Do not include:

  • Cars, boats or mobile homes.
  • Real property outside of California.
  • Property held in trust, including a living trust.
  • Real or personal property that the person who died owned with someone else (joint tenancy).
  • Property (community, quasi-community, or separate) that passed directly to the surviving spouse or domestic partner. 
  • Life insurance, death benefits or other assets not subject to probate that pass directly to the beneficiaries.
  • Unpaid salary or other compensation up to $5,000 owed to the person who died.
  • The debts or mortgages of the person who died. (You are not allowed to subtract the debts of the person who died.)
  • Bank accounts that are owned by multiple persons, including the person who died.

For a complete list, see California Probate Code section 13050.

If the total value of these assets is $150,000 or less and 40 days have passed since the death, you can transfer personal property by writing an affidavit. There is a special form for this that you can get from most banks and lawyers. Your court’s self-help center may also have this form or a sample you can use to guide you. 

Click for more information on the affidavit and for help preparing your own form.

If You Were Married to or Were a Registered Domestic Partner of the Person Who Died

You may be able to use a simple form, called a Spousal or Domestic Partner Property Petition (Form DE-221) to get a court order that says:

  • What your share of the community property is; and
  • What part of your deceased spouse or partner’s share of community and separate property belongs to you.

 

If the surviving spouse/partner is legally entitled to all of the property, a more complicated probate procedure may not be required. For example, a couple that was married for decades may only own “community property,” which belongs to the surviving spouse/partner and is confirmed by the court in the spousal property petition case.

If the Person Who Died Left MORE Than $150,000

If the dead person’s property is worth more than $150,000, none of the exceptions apply. You must go to court and start a probate case.

To do this, you must file a Petition for Probate (Form DE-111). This one form has different options, such as:

  • Petition for Probate of Will and for Letters Testamentary
  • Petition for Letters of Administration

Talk to a lawyer if you are not sure which option you should choose on this form. Click for help finding a lawyer.

Steps to Take If the Case Belongs in Probate Court

1.  The custodian of the will (the person who has the will at the time of the person’s death) MUST, within 30 days of the person’s death:

    • Take the original will to the probate court clerk’s office within 30 days. Contact your superior court courthouse to find out where the probate court clerk’s office is located.
    • Send a copy of the will to the executor (if the executor cannot be found, then the will can be sent to a person named in the will as a beneficiary).

If the custodian does not do these things, he or she can be sued for damages caused.

NOTE: If there is no will and a court case is needed, the court will appoint   an administrator to manage the estate during the probate process. The   person who wants to be the administrator must file a Petition for Letters of Administration (Form DE-111). The administrator usually is the spouse,  domestic partner, or close relative of the dead person.

2. Someone, called "the petitioner," must start a case in court by filing a Petition for Probate (Form DE-111). The case must be filed in the county where the person who died lived (or if the person lived outside of California, in the California county where that person owned property).

      The Petition for Probate has different options, like:

  • Petition for Probate of Will and for Letters Testamentary
  • Petition for Probate of Will and for Letters of Administration with Will Annexed
  • Petition for Letters of Administration
  • Note: To start a probate case you will need more forms than just the Petition for Probate form.  Talk to a lawyer for help with your case. Click for help finding a lawyer.

    3.   After a probate case is filed:

    • The probate clerk sets a hearing date.
    • The petitioner must give notice of the hearing to anyone who may have the right to get some part of the estate, plus the surviving family members even if there is a will and they are not named in it. Any person who is interested in the court case may file a Request for Special Notice (Form DE-154), which means that they must receive a copy of paperwork filed by the person who is chosen to manage the estate.
    • The petitioner CANNOT mail the notice. It must be mailed by any other adult who is not a party to the case.
    • The petitioner must arrange for notice to be published in a newspaper of general circulation.
    • A court probate examiner reviews the case before the hearing to see if it was done correctly.
    • Once all the paperwork has been reviewed by the examiner and corrected, if necessary, the judge decides who to appoint to be in charge as the personal representative of the estate (also called the “administrator” or “executor”).
    • The personal representative gathers up the assets and prepares an Inventory and Appraisal (Form DE-160) to be filed.  The personal representative usually will also need to contact a probate referee to value the nonmonetary assets. Find the contact information for a probate feferee in your county. (Get more information on probate referees.)
    • The personal representative provides formal notice to creditors with the Notice of Administration to Creditors (Form DE-157) and pays the debts.
    • A final personal income tax return is prepared for the person who died.
    • The probate court figures out who gets what property.
    • A Report of Sale and Petition for Order Confirming Sale of Real Property (Form DE-260) is filed with the court so that sales of real property are confirmed by the court.
    • If the estate earned any money (such as interest or profit in a sale), the personal representative will have to submit a final estate tax return.
    • The personal representative reports to the court on how the estate was handled. This report is a final plan and accounting. The report is scheduled for hearing so the judge can review how the personal representative handled everything. The judge needs to be satisfied that everything has been properly taken care of.
    • After filing with the court any required final receipts to show that everyone received their property from the estate, the court discharges the personal representative from his or her duties.

    More Information on Wills, Probate, Trusts, and Estates

    Do I Need Estate Planning?
    A State Bar of California pamphlet.

    Do I Need a Living Trust?
    A State Bar of California pamphlet.

    Do I Need a Will?
    A State Bar of California pamphlet.

    DMV: Transfer a vehicle without probate
    Information from the Department of Motor Vehicles' website.

    DMV: Affidavit for Transfer Without Probate
    Department of Motor Vehicles' form.

    California Public Law Libraries
    This website provides extensive online self-help information, listing of county law libraries, AskNow law librarian service, mini-research classes, general research, and links to more resources. Talk with a lawyer to understand how law affects you and your rights.  Click for
    help fnding a lawyer.

    Sacramento County Public Law Library Legal Resource Guide
    This site has a list of books on wills, probate, trusts, and estates and other topics. Click on the topic that interests you for more information.

    San Francisco Law Library's Research Guide
    This site has a list of books on wills, probate, trusts, and estates. Click to find a book on this list.

    Statutory Will Form
    This site includes the statutory will form, instructions, commentary, and questions and answers about the form. Created by the State Bar of California.

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