Ultimate guide to probate in California

California probate is not always easy, but this guide will break down the process and answer commonly asked questions about probate in California.

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What is probate in California?

Probate in California is a court-supervised, formal proceeding that validates a Will (if there is one), appoints an executor, and works through the process to settle an estate. After paying any debts and taxes the estate may owe, the remaining assets will be distributed to rightful heirs and beneficiaries.

Note that while the role is the same, in California probate, the “executor” is known as a “personal representative.” Another key difference about probate in California is that it’s not one of the 16 states that follows the Uniform Probate Code (UPC). The UPC is a standardized code used by several states in an attempt to make the probate process more uniform from state to state. Thus, certain aspects of probate in California can be slightly different from states who’ve adopted the UPC.


How much does probate cost in California

There are several probate fees that will be common in any state. Things like the following should be expected:

  • Court and filing fees

  • Executor fees

  • Professional fees – for accountants, surveys, and appraisals  

  • Attorney fees (if you use one)

  • Executor compensation

California probate fees might also include a probate bond, unless the Will specifically waives it or all beneficiaries agree to forego it. California also sets all executor fees by statute. Note that an executor can always waive their fee if they choose to do so.

Not sure if you need to go through probate? Need help probating the estate of a loved one? Learn more about Probate with Trust & Will.

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Dying without a Will in California

Dying without a Will in California is known as passing intestate. In this case, state law dictates who’s entitled to the decedent’s (the person who passed away) property. 

Intestate succession laws in California allow for the following to inherit assets and property:

  • Spouses

  • Registered domestic partners

  • Blood relatives

The order that assets will pass through is:

  • Surviving spouse

  • Children

  • Grandchildren

  • Parents

  • Siblings

  • Grandparents

  • Uncles/aunts

  • Additional extended family

Note that any items that are not considered probate assets can pass directly to the intended beneficiary. Non-probate assets can include things like:

  • Trust-owned assets

  • Life insurance proceeds (with a named beneficiary)

  • Retirement account funds – 401k, IRA, etc. (with a named beneficiary)

  • Funds or accounts titled Transfer on Death (TOD) 

  • Accounts titled Payable on Death (POD)

  • Jointly titled property with right of survivorship


How to start probate in California

There is a general process for starting probate in California. You’ll first need to get in contact with the probate court. From there, you’ll simply:

  • Get yourself (or whomever will fill the role) appointed as executor (in California this role is known as personal representative).

  • Provide the court with the Will, if one exists.

  • Take inventory of all assets.

  • Determine valuations for any probate assets (note, you may need to involve a professional appraiser for this step).

  • Ensure the court and beneficiaries approve valuations.

  • Pay off any debts/taxes the estate owes.

  • Distribute any remaining assets to the appropriate beneficiary.

As the personal representative, you should also be prepared to:

  • Set up a checking account for the estate

  • Acquire an EIN

  • Read and understand the Will

  • Work and communicate with beneficiaries

  • Notify creditors of the decedent’s death

  • Understand and abide by legal deadlines associated with the probate process

  • Pay final bills

  • File tax returns on behalf of the estate

  • Submit a death certificate

  • Keep receipts of any payments made or debts that were paid off

  • Officially close the estate at the end of the process

Still looking for estate settlement help? Learn more about Probate with Trust & Will.

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Commonly asked questions about probate in California

When is probate required in California?
Probate isn’t required for every estate in California; however, most will go through the process. Small estates, estates where everything is held in a Trust, and other strategic planning may allow an estate to be settled without the probate process.
How long does the probate process take in California?
Probate in California, for an average sized estate, can take anywhere from 9 (which is extremely rare) to 18 months. Especially complex estates can take up to 2 years or longer.
Probate forms in California
There are several forms you should be aware of if you’re going through probate in California.

The most important include: Certificate of Filing Will; Petition of Probate; Notice to Creditors; Bond/Waiver of Bond; List of Interested Persons; Filing Inventory/Appraisal; Ongoing/Annual Accounting Records; Notice to Beneficiaries; Filing to close probate; and Release of Liability/Responsibility.
Do I need a probate attorney in California?
In California, you do not legally need to hire a probate attorney. However, if you anticipate a difficult probate process, where beneficiaries or interested parties question any part of the distribution of assets, it might be worth thinking about.
What are the types of probate in California
Types of probate in California can vary based on complexity of the estate. Most people will go the shortest route they can in an effort to get through the process as quickly as possible.

That said, there are 3 types of probate in California: Simple Probate by Affidavit; Summary Probate – Small Estate Administration; and Formal or Full Probate.
What are the probate deadlines in California
Making sure you meet all probate deadlines will help you complete probate in California as quickly as possible.

4 months – Time allowed after letters are issued to submit asset inventory and valuations to the courts.

4 months – Time allowed for a personal representative to make any changes to valuations or add new assets after finding information out.

30 days – Time allowed to petition court after the decedent’s passing.

30 days – Time allowed to notify creditors (after finding out about each), OR by 4 months after formally initiating the probate process.*

*Note: the most common mistake personal representatives make is failure to properly notify creditors.