Are Probate Records Public in California?
Probate files are public records that anyone can read. Thanks to modern technology, locating copies of documents with probate information online has become incredibly easy and, in most cases, absolutely free. In some states, the court can give you the names of all creditors and heirs of the real estate, and you can use this information to obtain other records related to the probate estate.
Historic probate records in California are kept by the superior court in each county. Since 1879, the county superior court has held jurisdiction over probate matters. The county probate clerk is the custodian of these records for all time periods. For example, if the deceased lived in Newport Beach, then their probate records would be held by the county probate clerk of Orange County Superior Court. You can obtain copies of the original probate records (wills, estate files, etc.) by writing to the county clerk.
Most county superior courts in California also have an online system for viewing historic probate records through a simple online search. For example, the Sacramento Superior Court has a public case access system that provides the ability to view case information and public documents on probate cases. Through the system, you can view a full list of documents related to trust and estate cases initiated after February 5, 2007.
Keep in mind that you can see which documents were filed in the database, but it won’t let you actually view the documents. You do also have the option to go to the court and get access to documents through one of the court’s kiosks free of charge.
Records of older probate records (i.e. before the 1940s) for Sutter, Stanislaus, Sonoma, Santa Clara, San Diego, Nevada, Mendocino, Marin, Humboldt, and other counties are available at the California State Archives. Another easy way to obtain older probate records is through online genealogy databases, but they may charge fees before being granted access to the probate case files. For example, Ancestry.com has a collection of probate document images for approximately 62% of California counties (1850 to 1953). FamilySearch.com also has a database of probate files from 10 California counties (1833 to 1991).
Types of Probate Records
Probate records are documents that relate to the distribution of a deceased person’s (“decedent”) estate. An estate can either be “testate” (distributed through a will) or “intestate” (without a will). Regardless of whether the decedent left behind a large estate or just some small personal property, there’s a good chance that a probate file exists in the county court that oversaw the probate proceeding.
The contents of a probate file can vary from case to case, but certain details are found in most probate court documents. These include the names and residencies of any heirs and their relationship to the deceased. It can also include an inventory of estate assets, which you can use to determine the decedent’s occupation and lifestyle. The probate records typically include:
- Wills – A last testament and will directs the distribution of an estate according to the wishes of the deceased. When the author of the will (testator in legal terms) dies, the executor named in the will asks the court for letters of testamentary to prove the will is authentic. Once the will is validated, the executor is given the power to probate the estate.
- Letters of administration – In cases where there is no will, state intestate laws are used to govern the distribution of inheritance. The widow/widower or eldest child can petition the court for letters of administration. These letters make the person the administrator of the estate and give them the right to oversee the distribution of the estate according to intestate laws.
- Inventories – Part of the probate process is to inventory the estate. The inventory is an official record of the assets together with their appraised values, and they allow for accurate accounting. Inventories can also give you insights into a person’s occupation, lifestyle, and relative wealth.
- Distributions and accounting – Documents relating to distributions paid out of the estate for administrative costs as well as the final distribution of the estate. You may also find receipts or documents relating to the sale of estate assets here.
- Bonds – Administrators of estates may sometimes have to post a bond that would cover the value of the estate to protect the heirs from misconduct. Bondsmen were typically close family members, so these are important documents for genealogical research.
- Guardianships – Sometimes, a minor child or a dependent family member may require guardianship. Probate files include guardianship papers if that’s the case.
How Can I Find Out If a Will Was Filed in California? How to Find Probate Records Online?
To find out if a will has been filed, you have to first find the correct probate court where the estate was probated. It is typically the court of the county where the testator lived. Search for the name of the city or town the deceased person lived in to get the name of the county. Use that information to locate the appropriate county court. Once you know the probate court location, you can get confirmation by:
- Checking online – Most county courthouse websites have a public access portal for looking up probate information. For example, if the decedent lived in Los Angeles, then you can use the Los Angeles County Superior Court website. You can get a summary of a probate case if you provide the decedent’s full name and, if possible, the probate case number based on the information in the probate record books. Full probate records are not available online.
- Calling the court – If the county court doesn’t have an online access service for the record books, then call the court and speak with one of the probate clerks. They should be able to provide you with the probate case number and location of the will based on the existing county court records.
- Visiting during business hours – Wills that have been delivered to a court filing clerk are public records. Anyone can go to the court where a will was filed to obtain copies in person. You just have to provide the clerk with the full name, court case number, and any other identifying information. Copies are usually around 50 cents per page.
It’s generally easier to obtain information about recent wills. Recent cases are more likely to be available in public access databases, while records from decades ago may not be digitized. In such cases, it’s a good idea to visit the county court archive where older wills are stored to acquire the documents in person.
Note: While the law requires all wills to be lodged with the county court where the deceased lived, most people rarely do it unless someone files a probate petition. If the will isn’t lodged in court and you are a legal heir of the decedent, then you can ask the decedent’s personal representative to give you a copy. If they refuse, then you can petition the court to compel them to provide you a copy.
Get Help With Probate in California
The probate process doesn’t have to be the difficult process people claim it is. In fact, you don’t even need to hire a probate attorney to complete it! Involving a probate lawyer is a surefire way of hiking up the cost, which is the source of most of the horror stories about probate.
The probate procedure itself isn’t expensive; it’s the professional fees that get you. But don’t worry! The estate executor or administrator can complete the legal requirements of probate DIY style. If you stumble at any point of the process, then consider using a legal document assistant service like A People’s Choice.
Contact A People’s Choice if you need help with probate in California. Our team of legal document assistants can help you complete full probate. This includes the facilitation of court filings, publishing administrative notices, and ongoing case management. Call us today to get started!