What Is Probate Court?
Dealing with the death of a loved one or relative is one burden no one wants to bear. It can be both physically and emotionally stressful, and it requires a lot of time and energy to bring oneself to terms with the fact that they are gone. It is dreadful to think that after dealing with all that, one still has to face the stress of sorting through or managing the decedent’s estate and properties. Things can be slightly easier if the individual laid out plans in a will before their death (probate of wills) and left behind estate planning documents.
When an individual dies, the probate process must begin. That’s the legal process that takes place after death regarding the administration of the person’s estate and distribution of their assets and properties to heirs and beneficiaries. Guess which court handles and sees to this process? You guessed right: the probate court.
By definition, a probate court is a judicial system (a court) that has jurisdiction to handle matters that fall under the probate process. This includes wills, estate administration, conservatorships, and the like. In other words, the probate court sees to the proper administration and distribution of a decedent’s assets, decides the validity of wills, ensures that the provisions of the wills are upheld, and monitors the activities of the estate executor or administrator.
Do Probates Always Have to Go to Court?
Yes. If an estate must undergo probate, it has to go to court. As stated earlier, the probate court decides and oversees the administration of the probate estate. The probate court in California has exclusive jurisdiction over the administration of the deceased person’s property. Therefore, probate proceedings have to be under the full control of the probate court. The probate court can also handle issues such as disposition of the estate property, audit of returns of executors, the appointment and removal of executors and administrators, the involuntary commitment of the mentally ill, and issuance of marriage licenses.
However, to save time and energy, a testator (before their death) or their family (after their death) may decide to employ the services of a probate attorney for legal advice during the proceedings. When this is done, the attorney makes all the court runs to complete the entire process on behalf of the family for specific fees.
Important Terms to Know in The California Probate Court
When an individual dies and their will or estate is being probated, it is important for everyone involved in the probate process to familiarize themselves with some essential terms. You’ll commonly encounter these in the California probate court, and it helps to be prepared.
- Probate: The process of validating a will to decide how and to whom to distribute the decedent’s assets and properties.
- Decedent: Otherwise called the deceased, the decedent is the individual who died. This is the person whose will or estate is being probated.
- Custodian of the will: This is the person who owns the will at the time of death of the testator.
- Executor: This is the person named in the will and appointed by the probate court to bear the responsibility of administering the decedent’s wishes as contained in the will.
- Beneficiary: What we call any individual or individuals who inherit the decedent’s properties or assets when there is a will. The type of assets to get inherited may vary from simple possessions to large pieces of property.
- Heir: Unlike the beneficiary, the heir is the person who inherits the decedent’s properties or assets when there is no will.
- Will: A legal document that stipulates what an individual wishes to happen to their assets and wealth after death.
- Testate: This is the term used to describe when an individual dies leaving a will.
- Intestate: As opposed to testate, intestate is the term used to describe when an individual dies without a will.
- Intestate succession: This refers to the legal order of who is liable to inherit the property of a person who dies intestate.
- Legatees: This term refers to the individuals who are named as beneficiaries in a will.
- Personal property: The personal property of a decedent refers to things they owned, such as clothing, cash, stock, jewelry, and cars.
- Real property: This refers to the landed property of the decedent, such as building structures and land.
- Trust: This term refers to the situation where an individual (the trustee) holds the property on behalf of another individual (the settlor) for the benefit of a third party (the beneficiary). It’s not usually used for simple estates.
- Abatement: This describes the reduction of the benefits or properties in an estate in the event of the estate not having enough property to pay each beneficiary fully.
- Appraisal: Appraisal in the probate context can be defined as the valuation of an estate in a bid to value and distribute the assets in the estate fairly.
- Affidavit: This is a statement written under oath. It’s legally binding and can be executed under the penalty of perjury.
- Appreciated property: A type of property that is expected to increase or have increased in value by the time the will is administered. Appreciated property often includes stocks, investments, and real estate.
Having explained the commonly used terms in the California probate court, let’s proceed to intimate you with the probate court process and the court’s role in it.
The Probate Court Process in California
One nice thing about the probate process in California is that it’s relatively simple compared to some states. The only downside is that it can be pretty expensive apart from paying the filing fee.
Probate in California is not so complicated because various legal waivers allow many families to avoid the entire probate process! These include joint tenancies, survivorship community properties, and living trusts.
Also, some assets may not need to go through the probate aspects of estate administration. For example, if the value of the estate is smaller than a certain amount ($166,250 in California), it won’t need to go through probate. Beneficiaries can simply claim the properties with an affidavit to enable the administration of estates.
However, if a will or asset must go through probate in California, the basic process of the probate court goes as follows.
- After the executors or administrators of estates have been appointed, the very first step is to file for probate. You do this by filing the will alongside the petition for probate in the probate court located in the county where the decedent lived. The executor also must provide death certificates as evidence. This is filed with a fee of about $435 or thereabouts depending on the county.
- Having filed the petition for probate, the probate process has officially been started. The next step is to serve formal notice (for the essence of public record) of the probate process to the public. This notice also goes to family members, beneficiaries, and creditors alike.
- If there is a will, it must be proven to be valid. This involves having witnesses co-sign a joint legally sworn statement. The statement is then submitted to the probate court before asset distribution starts.
- The court issues a letter of administration to the executor formally saddling them with the responsibility of administering the will per the decedent’s stipulations about the estate division.
- Having secured the letter of administration, the next step is to take inventory of the decedent’s estate and digital assets as recorded in the will. This helps to determine the value of the estate, hence avoiding a difficult time during access to assets.
- The executor is expected to take care of the estate’s bills and taxes, open an estate bank account, and apply for a taxpayer ID number for the estate.
- After the estate’s bills and debts are paid and taxes settled, it’s time for the distribution of assets and properties to the heirs or proper beneficiaries as per the decedent’s stipulations in the will.
- The final step after all due process has been followed and the assets distributed is to submit all receipts and audit records. This includes a record of all activities and transactions conducted in the course of the probate process. These are submitted to the probate court along with a request for the estate to be closed and the executor relieved from the role. When the court accepts this, it signifies the successful completion of the probate process.
What Is Probate Court? It’s Much Simpler With A People’s Choice!
In summary, if an individual dies with or without a will, the probate court will be actively involved in the probate process except in the event of the exceptions listed in this article. The decisions of the probate court are binding on both the executor and beneficiaries of an estate, and they must be strictly adhered to.
We hope we have been able to shed more light on whatever dark spots you may have been facing concerning the probate process in California. For more information about the California probate process, check out our various articles on probate as well as legal documents in California. And if you need help with your probate paperwork, use our document preparation services to be sure your i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed and a fraction of the cost of a lawyer. Contact us today to start!