It’s impossible to overstate the pain of losing a loved one. While you’re trying to process the grief, legal red tape is the last thing you want to deal with. If your loved one did not leave a will or beneficiary designation that specifies who should get a share of their left-behind property, you may, unfortunately, need to deal with some of this red tape. That leads many Californians to ask themselves: “Do I need a probate lawyer in California to make my life a little easier?”

The answer is sometimes “yes,” but it really depends on your case. Sometimes, you can settle probate without personal representatives and their exorbitant costs. Read on to learn more about probate and how you can make it easier for yourself. After all, you want to focus on honoring your loved one, not dealing with estate proceedings and legal fees.

What Is Probate?

Probate is the legal process that transfers the assets of a deceased person to their heirs or intended beneficiaries. Assets can include bank accounts, a house, a life insurance policy, retirement accounts, and any other probate estate property.

The probate procedure is a court-supervised process. It includes multiple steps, including providing legal notice to creditors before having probate hearings to distribute property to beneficiaries.

Probate can take more than a year to complete. It may also be costly, with lawyers and executors charging fees for their services throughout the entire process. It is often difficult or impossible to know the deceased person’s estate property and the assets included, so you may need to pay appraisal fees to find out fair market values as well.

Is Probate Always Necessary?

Probate is not always necessary, but it may be required if the deceased person’s will does not name an executor (someone to administer their estate). Likewise, if a person dies without leaving an estate plan or death beneficiary, California law distributes their probate assets to the closest living relative (based on intestate succession). A trust company is usually appointed as the executor to carry out estate procedures in these cases.

What Assets Qualify for Probate?

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It may surprise you to learn that not all assets are subject to probate & estate administration. However, many of these have to be specifically planned by the estate holder during their estate planning to bypass probate. Here are some common examples of such assets:

  • Jointly owned property/community property
  • Life insurance benefits in an insurance company
  • 401(k)s and IRAs, if they have a named beneficiary
  • Pensions, if they have a named beneficiary or are payable to you under the plan’s terms
  • Joint tenants assets
  • Assets are held in a revocable or irrevocable trust or in a living trust. Trust beneficiaries can get access without probate.
  • Assets within a POD beneficiary account (Payable on Death accounts) or those liable to spousal petition for succession
  • Lifetime gift (inter Vivos gift)

Additionally, if there’s a living spouse, you can avoid formal probate with a spousal property petition. The process requires that the deceased’s final tax returns (usually a personal income tax return) be created before the distribution of the estate property. This matter is especially simple if the spouse is the sole beneficiary.

Basically, any estate assets that aren’t listed above are subject to probate. In other words, if your loved one didn’t do careful estate planning, it’s likely you’ll have to go through probate. This can include brokerage accounts, social security payments, real estate, bank accounts, and more. 2

Even if the deceased did have a will and will out a beneficiary designation form, it is probably not enough to keep the estate out of probate. However, in some cases, simplified procedures may be used if the actual estate or personal property is worth less than $166.250.

What Is the Probate Process Like?

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The probate process is a court-supervised procedure that oversees the distribution of a person’s real property when they die. Basically, it includes these steps:

  • The probate process begins with the filing of the death certificate, the validation of the will, and the naming of the executor or personal representative
  • All interested parties are notified and a notice is put in the paper so anyone involved can file a formal claim if needed
  • The executor or estate representative assesses the value of the estate according to estate law
  • The executor arranges for any debts to be paid
  • The rest of the estate is distributed to people with a valid claim according to the will or the dictates of the court. The estate can then be closed according to the operation of law.

How Much Does Probate Cost in California?

Probate can also unfortunately cost a significant amount. The cost of probate service depends on how complicated your situation is. If there are many assets involved or any litigation involved, it may take longer than usual and cost more money. A large factor in this is also whether you choose to hire a probate lawyer.

What Is a Probate Lawyer in California?

A probate lawyer, as the name suggests, specializes in probate law. They handle issues related to the estate of a person who has died, including filing paperwork for probate court proceedings, preparing for hearing dates, and navigating the procedures involved.

A lot of people hire probate professionals to assist in estate planning. A probate attorney or paralegal service can help with these tasks before and after the death of a client:

  • Planning for different types of estate
  • Drafting a will or trust document and transfer of title
  • Creating a Power of Attorney document
  • Protecting the rights of heirs, beneficiaries, and professional fiduciaries
  • Managing life insurance beneficiary designations and transfer of title applications
  • Handling disputes between family members during probate proceedings

Why Do People Hire Probate Lawyers?

There are several benefits to getting a probate lawyer. Most people who choose to hire a probate lawyer are hoping for these advantages as part of the terms of representation.

Saving Time

An executor of an estate or an administrator has to work quickly and efficiently to distribute the estate assets as soon as possible. For many, this type of careful accounting and preparation can mean working long hours or weekends.

A probate attorney can help guide you through this complicated process and file all probate forms. This can help things go smoothly without unnecessary delays or mistakes made along the probate petition, and help each new legal owner get their inheritance as fast as possible.

Avoiding Stress

Dealing with someone else’s affairs after they pass away is never easy. A probate lawyer’s guidance can understandably take away some of the pressure of having to navigate every separate petition and legal title by yourself.

Getting Your Full Inheritance

The legal system is complex. Many dishonest services can try to take advantage of those who don’t have a lawyer or know how the system works. An attorney can help protect you from this type of fraud and avoid numerous documents.

Also, relatives can disagree about what should happen during probate. They may even contest the will or try to get more than was allotted them during a probate filing. A probate lawyer can come in handy if you find yourself in this situation.

Saving Money

While it seems counterintuitive, a probate attorney can help you avoid wasting money on legal expenses. How? They can make sure you don’t make mistakes when filing forms or conducting your probate administration, which can lead to extra fees and time. They can also help you, as mentioned above, fight any relatives who want an inappropriately large share of the estate.

How Much Does a Probate Lawyer Cost?

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Probate attorneys don’t come cheap. However, they do charge a wide range of fees depending on their experience, your case, and their location, among other factors.

While some probate attorney fees are charged by the hour, others prefer to charge flat fees for specific services or phases of the process. Here are some things to keep in mind.

The Particular County You Live In

Counties such as Los Angeles County and San Francisco are notoriously expensive to conduct probate in. Their probate courts are very congested, and the court filing fees are very high. As a result, probate lawyers in those counties typically charge more than probate lawyers in other parts of the state.

San Diego County and San Bernardino County are less expensive counties to probate in. Probate lawyers in these counties, including Orange County and San Jose, charge less than probate lawyers in other parts of the state.

Keep in mind that if you live in an area where many attorneys practice probate law, they’ll compete with each other on price while still providing quality work. However, wherever you live in California, statistics suggest you can expect to pay 4% of the value of your estate up to the first $100k, with a descending percentage as the estate gets more valuable. So, for example, you would need to pay a lawyer about $4,000 to probate a $100k estate in addition to paying other probate fees—and that’s only if your estate isn’t particularly complex.

The Complexity of the Estate Plan

Having more than one beneficiary listed in your will could add time and complexity to the proceedings. The amount involved in administering the estate can also affect the attorney probate fee. For example, larger estates usually have more complicated matters (like extra real estate or trusts) requiring a lengthy process and an accountant (and their accounting fees) as well as an attorney.

Let A People’s Choice Help You

In as much as lawyers are vital in this whole process, they can be very pricey. If you’d rather keep the estate checking account as large as possible as you move through the probate process, and if you’re dealing with a fairly simple estate, there’s a suitable alternative that can save you thousands of dollars.

If you have lost a loved one recently and you need help in probating their estate, contact A People’s Choice. We are a legal document preparation service that can help with all your county probate paperwork, from setting up an estate bank account to filing a formal notice and creating a petition for final distribution. Our services can save you time and prevent stress while also saving you money. We serve Imperial County, Santa Clara, Santa Monica, Santa Barbara, and any other county in California. Contact us today to begin your probate process with an online petition.