Anyone who has settled the estate of a deceased loved one has likely heard of probate. It’s essentially the legal process of administering a person’s estate when they die. It includes the distribution everything that person owned: cash, real estate, cars, investments, retirement accounts, life insurance policies, and more.
Probate is designed to be as easy as possible. First, the court appoints an executor (if there is a will) or an administrator (if there is no will). Then, this representative collects the assets, pays debts and expenses, and distributes what is left to beneficiaries who have the legal right to inherit.
That sounds very straightforward, right? You may wonder, then, why we hear so many horror stories about probate. It often boils down to a person not making any preparations for their death. When this occurs, the court-appointed representative can have a hard time settling the estate because the deceased left no records. These types of cases often end up getting clogged in the justice system for years.
Every state has its own set of probate rules to deal with such cases. In California, the probate process follows the California Probate Code. It has provisions to account for almost every conceivable scenario, including what happens to an estate when there is no will or when there are no living heirs.
California Probate Code
The California Probate Code governs what happens to a deceased or incapacitated person’s assets. It contains provisions that regulate:
- Wills, trusts, and other estate planning instruments
- Power of attorney
- Health care decisions
- Guardianship, conservatorship, and other protective proceedings
- Administration of estates
- Disposition of estate without administration
The probate code basically dictates how an estate is assessed, valued, and passed on. It makes decisions on guardianship for kids and conservatorships for the elderly. It also covers how debts against an estate are settled, the waiting period before assets are transferred, and whether the probate process can be skipped entirely.
You can read the entire California Probate Code on the California Legislative Information website.
Avoiding Probate in California
Considering the complexity of the probate code, you might think it doesn’t matter to the average person. But that’s not true. The code applies to everyone, but there are still ways to avoid probate in California. Here are the top four:
- Draft a living trust – A living trust can serve as an alternative to a last will and testament. It bypasses probate by placing your real property and assets “in trust” with an appointed trustee to manage it for your beneficiaries.
- Designate beneficiaries – You can designate beneficiaries for your bank accounts and real property upon your death without probate. The beneficiaries you pick won’t have any rights until after your death.
- Jointly hold property – Holding property as joint tenants is another easy way to avoid probate. If two people are joint tenants with the right of survivorship and one of them dies, the surviving owner will automatically own the property.
- Small estate probate procedures – Real and personal property with a gross value of less than $166,250 can avoid probate and be distributed using California’s “small estate” procedures.
Having an estate plan prepared is the best way to ensure probate won’t affect your loved ones after you pass away. This means drafting a will or trust and choosing a family member who will have financial power of attorney. You can also give a person a healthcare directive in case you suffer a serious accident or illness.
Start Your Estate Plan and Avoid California Probate
The first thing most people think of when they consider drafting a will is the cost of an attorney. It’s only natural to wonder if planning your estate is worth the cost, especially in this economy. You may be tempted to put it off until later. In fact, many Americans do exactly that. According to one recent survey, 68% of Americans don’t have a will.
Probate can be a complex and time-consuming process, especially for very large estates. It’s not something a family grieving the loss of a loved one should have to go through. Fortunately, planning your estate doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg. You don’t even need to hire an attorney to do it. A professional legal document service like A People’s Choice can help you prepare a living trust, last will, healthcare directive, and financial power of attorney—all for one flat fee.
Contact A People’s Choice at 800-747-2780 for more information on how the California probate process works and how you can avoid it. Our team of legal document assistants is available to answer your questions and help you prepare your pre-death documents.