The loss of a loved one brings immense grief and pain to family, friends, and relatives. At this time, the last thing anybody wants to think about is what assets and debts a loved one left behind. However, it is very useful to go to court and complete this pertinent task through probate to avoid unnecessary snags in the future. 

If you have unfortunately lost a dear one in the past, you must be familiar with the terms probate and probate court. This guide covers the definition of these terms and everything you need to know about probating an estate in California.

Definition of Probate Court

Probate refers to the legal process of verifying the authenticity of a deceased person’s will. In simple terms, it is the process wherein a court of law declares whether a given will is valid or not. Probate also includes the administration of estate without a will.

The probate court supervises the probate process. It is the part of the judicial system that deals with wills, estates, conservatorships, guardianships, admission of the mentally ill to mental institutions, etc. In some states, probate court is also known as orphan’s court, surrogate court, or chancery court.

California probate court decides if a will is valid or not. If someone contests the will, it is the probate court’s responsibility to authenticate it and verify the mental stability of the person who signed it. The court also decides who gets what, either based on the will or based on intestate succession laws.

After a person dies, the probate court assigns whoever the will names executor to regulate the process of probate. In cases where the will is absent, the probate court appoints an administrator to act as a personal representative. If the deceased had any kind of debts, the court may decide to collect their assets to pay off the debts. The probate court also orders the distribution of the assets of the estate to any legal heirs or beneficiaries. 

Probating With a Will

A deceased person who left behind an estate is called a “decedent.” Their estate is called the decedent’s estate. A decedent who dies with a will is known as a “testator.” Usually, a testator allocates the responsibility of initiating the probate process to an executor in the will. The executor is normally a financial advisor. If no executor is mentioned, the court appoints one.

After the death of the testator, the executor files the will with the probate court. The court then verifies its validity and accepts it as the true last testament of the decedent. Upon authentication, the court officially appoints the executor specified in the will, which gives them power to take legal action on behalf of the decedent.

The executor must then pay off any estate taxes and debts that the decedent left behind. Usually, creditors have a specific amount of time from the date of death when they can make claims against the estate for money owed to them. If the executor rejects any claims, then they may be taken to the probate court where a judge will decide if the claims are justified. 

The executor also has to file the final estate tax and personal income tax returns on behalf of the deceased. Pending estate taxes usually come due within a year from the date of death. After all this is done, the executor takes a catalog of the estate and calculates the value of the assets. Then the probate court authorizes the executor to distribute the remaining estate among the beneficiaries. 

Probating Without a Will

When a person dies without a will, they are declared to have died intestate. The corresponding estate is called an intestate estate. An intestate estate is also the one where the will is declared invalid by probate court. In such cases, the court distributes the assets according to intestate laws. If the decedent did not have any assets, then probate is not necessary at all. 

The probate proceeding begins with the probate court appointing an administrator to act as a personal representative with the power to supervise the deceased estate. The role of the administrator here is the same as that of an executor. The administrator pays off the debts and taxes and addresses all legal claims against the estate.

The administrator then locates the legal heirs of the deceased to distribute the remaining estate. Usually, the estate goes to the surviving spouse and children of the deceased. However, in cases where the decedent has neither a will nor any heirs, the property goes to the state. 

What Happens During a Hearing in California Probate Court?

At the first hearing, the probate judge chooses the executor or the administrator of the decedent’s estate. This is when the court gives the executor power to act on behalf of the deceased. If the executor of the will refuses to be the representative, or a beneficiary opposes the choice of executor, the court appoints someone else. 

During the second hearing, the probate court judge first lists all the responsibilities of the executor. These include paying off debts, contacting beneficiaries, taking inventory of the estate, and more. The judge will check records to make sure the executor did a good job. Once the personal representative completes their duties, the judge closes the estate and commences with the distribution of property to the proper beneficiary.

Can You Settle an Estate Without Probate Court?

Probate administration is an onerous process that you may want to avoid after the death of your loved one. The probate process can take away precious moments after the death of a loved one when you need to grieve in peace. Fortunately, it is possible to avoid probate in the state of California.

1. Spousal Property Petition

If the surviving spouse or domestic partner can inherit the assets of the deceased, then they can submit a Spousal (or Domestic Partner) Property Petition to the probate court. Although this process involves probate court, it is still quite simple and fast. Additionally, there is no maximum value of property that can transfer in this way.

2. Small Estate Affidavit (Out-of-Court Affidavit Procedure)

The state of California offers the inheritors a way to steer clear of probate completely. The catch here is that the value of the estate must be less than $150,000, and the estate must include real property of up to $55,425 in value. If both these conditions are true, then the inheritor can prepare an affidavit stating that they have the right to inherit the assets. An affidavit is basically a short legal document you sign under oath. When any institution or person holding decedent estate assets receives the affidavit along with a copy of the death certificate, they must release the assets.

3. Simplified Probate Procedure

California has another way for small estates to avoid probate. To wield this procedure, a beneficiary has to file a request with the superior court in the county where the decedent lived or where the probate estate is located, asking to utilize the simplified procedure. If the court gives its approval, the beneficiary can distribute the assets without going through the probate process. 

There are some limitations to this legal procedure. The estate’s value must not be more than $150,000. There must also not be an open probate case and the decedent’s executor must give written consent. Some types of property like real estate outside California, joint tenancy property, life insurance, property that goes straight to a surviving spouse, etc. are not eligible for the simplified procedure.

Do You Need a Probate Court Attorney to Deal With the System? 

While probate is a complex process, it is mostly paperwork. The paperwork mostly only requires completing fill-in-the-blank forms provided by California’s Judicial Council. You can find all these forms for free in the probate category of the California court’s website. Given the right help and information, executors can handle California probate proceedings by themselves. It is also the more affordable option.

As mentioned in the previous section, there are ways to avoid California probate. If the decedent estate is under a joint tenancy or less than $150,000 in value, you may not need to go through the probate process. In such cases, you will most probably not require a probate attorney. However, if there are impediments such as a fight over inheritance, more debts than assets, legal claims, or an ongoing business, then it is best to consult a lawyer who can help resolve the issues with the least damage.

Get Help With California Probate Court

Dealing with the death of a loved one is enough of a struggle without having to deal with mandatory legal matters. Although probate is mostly paperwork, you may likely make errors while you’re grieving. 

To avoid making mistakes in haste, contact A People’s Choice. We can help you successfully complete probate without charging expensive attorney fees. Our highly qualified team of legal document assistants is here to provide all the information you need on California probate. They are more than happy to guide you through the probate procedure for a flat one-time fee. Call us today to start!