How Does Probate Court Work in California?

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In California, when a person dies and leaves behind property and personal assets, a personal representative distributes the decedent's estate in one of three ways: as a small estate, an independent probate case or a court-supervised probate case. The distribution of a small estate valued at $150,000 or less does not generally require formal probate proceedings. An estate with a will and a named executor proceeds as an independent probate case; an estate without a will or a named executor proceeds as a court-supervised probate case. The probate procedure takes several months to complete, including the notification of beneficiaries, inclusion of creditor claims and distribution of assets.

Initial Probate Petition

The probate process starts when an individual files a petition for probate with the Superior Court of California on behalf of the decedent's estate. An attorney or potential executor files the petition and any existing will at the courthouse in the county where the decedent last resided. The petition includes information about the decedent, size of the estate, heirs, executor and any bond requirement. California courts often require bonds in probate cases that involve large estates and out-of-state executors. The bond covers financial losses and makes the estate whole again in the event the estate declines in value or estate representative mismanages estate funds. In some cases, heirs and beneficiaries can agree to waive the bond requirement.

Probate Case Procedure

The probate examiner at the county court reviews the probate petition, verifies that it meets state law requirements and makes a recommendation to the court for approval or denial. Once approved, the probate case takes an average of nine to 15 months to resolve. The court generally hears the case several weeks after the petition is filed due to overcrowded probate court calendars. Each probate case includes a four-month claims period during which creditors file claims against the estate's probate assets. Additional probate delays occur if the heirs or other parties challenge the will or distribution of assets.

Estate Executor or Administrator

During the probate process, a personal representative called an executor or administrator manages the estate. If a will exists and nominates an executor, that person serves as the personal representative of the estate. If a will does not exist, there is not a surviving nominated executor or a nominated executor has not agreed to manage the estate during probate, the state appoints an administrator. The court gives highest priority to the decedent's closest living relative to serve as administrator. Courts refer to the personal representative as the executor, an administrator or an "administrator with will annexed." The estate executor or administrator protects the estate, inventories the probate assets, files the estate taxes, pays reoccurring bills, resolves outstanding debts, locates heirs and distributes remaining estate assets, among other duties.

Notification of Probate Case

State law requires that all interested parties are notified of the pending probate case, including the named beneficiaries in a will, heirs of the deceased and nominated executors. The legal notification includes the date and time of the probate hearing and name and address of the courthouse. An interested party can go directly to the courthouse and ask the court clerk to review the case file, including the will and other applicable documents. If you have an objection to the will or distribution of probate assets, contact the probate examiner prior to the hearing and notify the court of your intentions to object. Otherwise, if the judge calls the case and no one raises objections, he will likely sign the court order for distribution without hearing additional testimony.


About the Author

Based in Los Angeles, Victoria McGrath has been writing law-related articles since 2004. She specializes in intellectual property, copyright and trademark law. She earned a Juris Doctor from the University of Arizona, College of Law. McGrath pursued both her Bachelor of Arts and Master of Fine Arts at University of California, Los Angeles, in film and television production. Her work has been published in the Daily Bruin and La Gente Newsmagazine.

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