Many people often assume they need to hire an attorney to probate a will or administer an estate in California. However, the high cost of hiring a probate attorney and paying statutory attorney fees can diminish your loved one’s assets. Therefore, learning how to represent yourself in probate court can prove incredibly useful for anyone looking to probate an estate. What happens at a probate court hearing and how will you represent yourself?

How to Represent Yourself in Probate Court

A People’s Choice has helped thousands of clients file matters pro se (or “for one’s self”) in probate court and adhere to every probate procedure without hiring a probate lawyer.

The pro se legal process begins with a person selecting the right proceeding for their situation. Need some help? Take a look at our probate legal document service to get started. The A People’s Choice website offers comprehensive information about the various types of probate proceedings.

What Happens at a Probate Court Hearing in California

California probate courts carry out the terms of decedents’ wills at their time of death. This task includes distributing estate assets to the designated beneficiaries and paying any outstanding debts for the real property. When the decedent left no will for the real estate, the estate property is termed an intestate estate. Intestate succession laws will therefore apply during the distribution of assets to heirs in a normal probate procedure.

In probate cases, the court works with an executor appointed by the testator’s will. The executor, or personal representative, can complete the probate process without hiring a probate attorney no matter the type of probate. Even if the decedent died without a will, the court has the legal authority to distribute the assets of the estate according to California statutes. An initial court hearing will go to a probate judge in charge of overseeing all probate cases in their jurisdiction.

The judge’s role in a probate case will vary depending on several factors, such as whether the decedent died with or without a will and whether the potential beneficiaries or rightful heirs are cooperative with the legal proceeding. In this court-supervised process, a death certificate is also needed before the whole process begins.

For example, in the case of disputed issues, the probate court judge will settle the disputes and address challenges through a formal probate process. However, if the potential beneficiaries and primary heirs are cooperative, the probate judge’s role will be minimal. This is specifically the case if the deceased left behind a will that had good estate planning without undue influence. In these situations, the judge simply ensures that the probate process and local rules are being followed and will sign all necessary orders throughout the timeline for probate.

The items that can be put under probate include real property, vehicles, estate funds, cash in bank accounts, stocks and bonds, and real estate holdings. Items not subject to probate include retirement accounts, life insurance policy (s), brokerage accounts, pension plans, and community property under joint tenancy.

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Resources for Representing Yourself

There are several legal guides and resources available at local law libraries to help you, as an estate administrator, understand the various stages of probate and probate timelines. Additionally, these guides can teach you how to represent yourself in probate court and oversee the distribution of assets to beneficiaries.

Furthermore, when you work with A People’s Choice, we provide every probate client with a step-by-step detailed self-help legal manual and guide that thoroughly explains the probate proceedings. We can also help in evaluating other alternatives to probate. This booklet is a very valuable reference tool for self-represented probate representatives.

Finally, as a legal representative of the estate, you can also contact the local court for information related to the standard probate forms and filing deadlines for the probate estate. However, be aware that court staff is unable to give legal advice nor tell you which form to complete and file; doing so is considered unauthorized law practice and may require additional hearings to complete the probate.

Step-By-Step Guide – How to Represent Yourself

What is a Probate Court?

For our clients who want to represent themselves in California probate court, A People’s Choice provides specific steps to help ensure they file the right type of petition.

If you’re interested in representing yourself in probate court and avoiding high attorney’s fees, follow the steps outlined below:

Research local probate court rules and requirements

Before probating an estate or a will in California, you should research local probate court rules and requirements. Luckily, most probate courts have rules and requirements listed on their website. These local rules will tell you where and how to probate the will, as well as outline the legal procedures. If no will exists, you’ll need to provide letters of administration, letters testamentary, or letters of authority.

If the deceased person had done some good estate planning, the probate process becomes straightforward.  Additionally, you can visit a local law library to check available practice guides and meet with legal professionals who can help direct you to other resources specifically designed for people representing themselves through informal probate.

Consult a licensed attorney for legal advice

Depending on the nature of the estate assets, you may want to consult a licensed attorney for some preliminary legal advice. However, this doesn’t mean you need to hire an attorney to probate the estate or will. Instead, you may just need clarification on the law and its applicability to your situation. This might help you in saving the costs of probate.

Find an attorney that offers free consultations and ask if they will charge you to review your legal issue. Sometimes, you may not want to share that you are considering representing yourself. Some attorneys will offer little direction or advice to a person they know has no intention of hiring them for the distribution of probate.

File your initial forms

At A People’s Choice, we can help draft and file all the California probate forms and documents during the estate administration process. We can help you save hundreds and even thousands of dollars by preparing your probate documents instead of hiring an expensive attorney to do it for you.

Before filing your petition for probate, you will need to complete the following forms:

  • The original will, if applicable
  • Notice of Petition to Administer the Estate (Form DE-121)
  • Duties and Liabilities for Personal Representative (Form DE-147)
  • Order to Probate (Form DE-140)
  • Letters (Form DE-150)

In addition to preparing these probate forms, you will need to give all interested parties notice. Plus, you may need to get a bond. However, if a person dies intestate, the court will administer the estate under California intestate succession laws.

Attend initial hearing

Once you have filed the required documents and provided public notice to all parties, you have to attend the probate hearing conducted by a probate court judge. During the hearing, if someone contests the will or your acting as the estate’s representative, the judge may continue the hearing. In this situation, there may be other court paperwork and follow-up hearings to solve those issues. Additionally, as the executor or administrator of the estate, you may be required to prepare for trial on disputed matters for the personal property belonging to the deceased person during or after the estate administration process. This process might include conducting formal discovery and filing motions for specific orders.

However, if no one contests the petition for probate and the paperwork is approved, the court will accept your petition. Then, at the hearing, the probate court judge will enter an order for probate and issue letters of testamentary or administration.

Take additional steps

The probate process takes between five to seven months to complete with many required steps, such as:

  • making an inventory of the deceased person’s property;
  • paying outstanding debts and outstanding bills;
  • filing all required tax documents including estate tax returns;
  • Paying federal estate taxes;
  • Serving a notice to creditors and potential creditors;
  • listing gifts to beneficiaries, and
  • keeping up a detailed accounting of all assets to be sent to all interested parties.

Attend the final probate court hearing

The final probate hearing can occur four or more months following the date the court clerk issues letters, which happens after the initial hearing. Then, at the last court hearing, the judge will approve the final distribution of the estate if there are no errors in the inventory and accounting statements. Additionally, the executor or estate’s representative will distribute gifts or inheritance to beneficiaries or heirs. Once this is done, the representative can petition the court to close the estate and relieve them of all duties.

Hiring a Legal Document Assistant

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The easiest way to represent yourself in California probate court is to hire a non-attorney legal document preparer to help with the probate documents and guide you through the process. However, remember to hire a registered legal document assistant with experience preparing the required probate forms. Additionally, make sure whomever you hire has good references. What have other clients said about their service? How easy was the process?

Luckily, A People’s Choice has over 35 years of experience assisting clients with probate. You can read some of their testimonials here. Plus, our website has extensive articles on probate law for your reference.

Contact A People’s Choice today for more information on how we can help you represent yourself in probate court.

Get help with your California legal documents today!

A People’s Choice can save you hundreds of dollars by preparing your legal documents instead of an expensive attorney!

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