An article showing the percentages on how to probate a small estate in California.

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How to probate a small estate in California

Going through probate in California? Learn how to take advantage of simplified procedures for small estates.

Mitch Mitchell

Mitch Mitchell, @MitchMitchell

Product Counsel, Legal, Trust & Will

A California small estate is defined as one in which the assets are under $184,500.  To take advantage of simplified procedures for small estates, you’ll follow one of three processes, depending on whether the estate includes real estate and the value of that real estate.

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Small estate under $184,500 without real estate

If the estate is valued at less than $184,500 and doesn’t include real estate, you can claim assets under the California small estate affidavit procedure. To do so, you must present an Affidavit for Collection Of Personal Property (a statement of facts that you swear is true) to the financial institution, DMV or other institution that holds or manages  the non-real-estate asset.

For the California small estate affidavit to be valid, the following conditions must be met:

  • Estate assets are valued at less than $184,500

  • At least 40 days have passed since the death of the decedent

  • No probate proceeding is now or has been conducted in California, or the personal representative has consented to the affidavit transfer in writing

  • An inventory and appraisal of the real property is included, and there is no real estate

  • The affiant is a successor of the decedent, as defined by California law

  • No other person has a higher priority to the decedent's assets. Priority is defined as who is legally entitled to the assets of the deceased — determined by the will, or if there is no will, by California’s laws of intestate succession

The small estate affidavit from California does not have to be presented in court, but it must be notarized and available to present to the institutions where the asset(s) reside or who deal with title transfers.

Most institutions in California are familiar with the affidavit transfer process. However, if you are dealing with an institution that is not based in California or simply is ignorant of the small estate transfer procedures, you may have to educate them on the process.

Small estate under $184,500 with real estate

For estates with total assets under $184,500 that include real estate, the Petition To Determine Succession To Real Property is a simplified probate procedure to transfer the deed of the real estate owned by the deceased.

This process will mirror the beginning of regular probate in that you must:

  • Petition the Court

  • Notify the Heirs

  • Have a Court Hearing

  • Provide an Inventory

  • Obtain a Court Order

After the hearing, the court will issue an order that designates the successor of the property. This order can then be used as the official court authority to change the deed.

Note: If the house will be sold, the deed must be modified first.

While using the Petition To Determine Succession of Real Property doesn’t entirely eliminate the need for court involvement, once the court issues its order, the process is complete and you don’t need further administrative or court interaction.  A traditional probate process would include many additional steps and interactions with the court before you could distribute any property. 

Small estate with real property valued under $61,500

If the estate qualifies for the small estate exemption and has real estate valued at less than $61,500, you can use an Affidavit for Real Property of Small Value. This document is similar to the Affidavit for Collection of Real Property, but it does have to be presented to the court and signed by the judge or court clerk. Once you receive the signed copy, you will then be able to transfer the deed.

The Affidavit for Real Property of Small Value is often used to transfer real property like timeshares. If you’re unsure about the right path forward, contact us. We can help you determine the correct procedure for your situation and correctly fill out the appropriate paperwork.

Small estates with cars

We are often asked whether probate is needed for small estates — for instance, where the only asset left solely in the deceased’s name is a car.

The short answer? Yes, you almost always have to go through the entire probate process even for small estates.

In the above example, to change the name on the car’s title (regardless of the value) from the deceased’s name to the name of the heir, you need a court order. And to get that court order, you have to go through probate.

Thankfully, many states have simplified procedures to probate a small estate. Each state’s threshold is different and can be lower or higher than California's. Some states even have a vehicle-only probate form or will simply let you transfer a certain number of vehicles without probate.

You can contact the DMV to see if this option is available in your state.

Do you have a handle on your own estate planning? At Trust & Will, we’re here to help you keep things simple. You can create a fully customizable, state-specific Estate Plan from the comfort of your own home in just 20 minutes. Take our free quiz to see where you should get started, or compare our different estate planning options today!

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