Understanding The Role of a Probate Referee in California

If you are settling an estate through the probate process, most likely you will need a probate referee. The role of a probate referee is to appraise property in the estate.  A probate referee is a professional, usually an attorney, a certified public accountant, or a person with several years of professional experience in property appraisal.   A probate referee has training in a wide variety of valuations, not just real estate valuation.  In California, all probate referees are appointed by the California State Controller’s Office.

Practically all California probated estates are required to be examined by a probate referee in California. In particular, the probate referee is tasked with appraising and evaluating the non-cash assets of an estate. Most probate referees are used to settle the value of estates. So what is a probate referee in California and when do you need one? This article will explain why some estates need a probate referee, why some don’t, and explain how to locate and appoint a California probate referee in a probate proceeding.

Probate Referee Definition

The California State Controller’s Office appoints probate referees. Probate referees appraise the non-monetary assets listed in the inventory of the decedent’s estate. In addition, probate referees may be asked to appraise the value of property not included in the probate process such as assets held in a living trust. Referees must satisfy the educational and work experience requirements as defined by the Controller’s Office. Probate referee candidates must pass a written exam and meet at least one of the following work experience requirements:

  1. California licensed attorney
  2. Certified Public Accountant
  3. Several years of experience in appraisal and property valuation

Probate Referee Function and Purpose

The function and purpose of the probate referee is to appraise the property of an estate in which some type of probate is necessary. The referee will receive information regarding the assets and debts of the decedent’s estate from the executor, administrator, or trustee. This information is identified and presented to the probate referee on an official form which the probate referee will complete and sign. Probate referees typically appraise and evaluate the following items:

  1. Real estate
  2. Valuable collectibles
  3. Business related property
  4. Stocks and bonds
  5. Household furniture
  6. Automobiles

Probate referees are required to appraise all non-cash assets of an estate. When the appraisal is completed, the probate referee is required to sign a statement attesting to the value listed for the non-monetary assets which are to be determined honestly, impartially, and to the best of the referee’s ability. This document known as Inventory and Appraisal Form DE-160, is filed with the probate court.

Once the probate referee finishes valuing the non-cash assets of the estate, he/she must sign the Inventory and Appraisal (Form DE-160). This document includes a statement that the valuations made by the probate referee were honest, impartial, and to the best of their ability. Once the probate referee finishes the appraisal, the personal representative is responsible for paying the referee’s fee for valuing the estate assets. The probate referee fee is equal to 0.1% of the total value of the estate assets listed on Attachment 2. For small estates, the probate referee has a minimum charge of $75. For extensive estates, the probate referee has a maximum fee of $10 thousand. Some probate referees indicate they will not release the completed  Inventory and Appraisal until they receive payment. Please note that this violates the rules for Probate Referees. Should a Probate Referee refuse to provide the completed Inventory until payment is received, you should contact the Probate Referee Association Ethics Chair at  paullsandiego@gmail.com. Payment to the Probate Referee does need to be made before the estate is closed. Once the Inventory is completed, you can file it with the probate court and proceed to finalize the probate process.

Do All Estates Need A Probate Referee ?

Most probate cases require a probate referee, but there are a few exceptions. If the estate is a small estate that is being settled through an affidavit rather than a court proceeding, the role of a probate referee might not be required. A probate referee is also not required when filing a spousal petition. Lastly, if the estate involves probate, and only lists cash assets on attachment 1 of the Inventory, then the court will not require a probate referee. Lastly, if an administrator can show good cause, he/she can petition the court to waive the probate referee requirement, and the court will hold a hearing to decide the matter. Be aware, however, that Judges rarely grant such a request.

Under most circumstances, a probate referee is required when an estate is settled through a California probate proceeding. However, there are a few instances when a probate referee is not needed to settle an estate. They are:

  1. Settling a small estate through a non-court Affidavit under California Probate Code Section 13100
  2. Filing a Spousal Property Petition
  3. Estates requiring court probate but only consist of cash assets

The role of a probate referee in probate cases is vital in the probate process. Many counties in California will automatically appoint a probate referee. If the court does not automatically select one, the administrator will need to file a form with the court to request the court appoint the probate referee. The local forms vary from county to county, so an administrator should check with their local courts to determine what steps are necessary to appoint the probate referee. You can find a listing of probate referees through the California Probate Referee Association or the California State Controller’s Office website. In small estate proceedings, the administrator may select any probate referee in the county where the property in the estate is located. Although rare, a court may waive the requirement of using a probate referee if there is a showing of good cause. In order to obtain a waiver for good cause, you must attend a hearing and file several documents with the probate court. Most judges are hesitant in granting such waivers.

California Probate Referee Fees

California probate referee fees are based on 1/10th of 1% (.001) of the total assets that are appraised. In addition, the probate referee can charge for expenses such as mileage, mapping, and photos. Probate referees receive a minimum fee of $75 and maximum fee of $10,000,000. Referee fees are paid by the estate. Many probate referees will not release the completed Inventory and Appraisal form to the estate representative until they have been paid for their services.

How to Locate A California Probate Referee

A probate referee can be located by visiting the Controller’s website. The website includes a directory of referees by county. You can also visit the California Probate Referees Association to find a California probate referee.

How to Request Appointment of Probate Referee

The process of having a probate referee appointed varies from county to county. Many counties automatically designate the appointed probate referee at item 6 of the Order for Probate. In other counties, however, a separate form must be filed with the court to request the appointment of a probate referee if one was not appointed in the Order for Probate. For example, in Ventura County, Form VN084 may be completed to request an order appointing a probate referee. Los Angeles County requires Local Form PRO-001 and San Mateo County uses their Local Form PR-5. It is important to check the local forms and rules in the county where the probate proceeding is being filed. This will avoid unnecessary delay in the process of a probate referee being appointed.

In probate proceedings where the Inventory and Appraisal must be completed before filing the application or petition, the petitioner must select the probate referee. The petitioning party may select any currently appointed probate referee in the county where the decedent’s property is situated to perform the inventory and appraisal.  Contact A People’s Choice for more information on how to request appointment of a probate referee in California.

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