Under California law, probate is the process in which a deceased person's estate is legally transferred to heirs or beneficiaries. If the person left a will, a probate court determines if the will meets all the formal requirements and is valid, and an executor is in charge of settling affairs and distributing the estate. Without a will, the court appoints an administrator to track down heirs, settle affairs and distribute any remaining assets.
Either way, probate can be time-consuming. Probate without a will, especially, can be expensive. The costs come out of the estate, leaving less to go around when it is time to distribute assets to the heirs. However, it's important to know that under California law, not every type of estate, or every type of asset, must go through probate, and there are ways to simplify the process.
First, it's important to remember that spouses or registered domestic partners of the deceased person may often inherit estates through a simplified process known as a spousal property petition. Still, larger estates may have to go through a full probate process even if the only heir is a spouse.
Estates that are worth $150,000 or less do not have to go through probate, and heirs can obtain title to assets in the estate through a simplified process. However, the simplified process cannot be used for real estate, and there are other requirements and limitations.
Generally, assets can avoid probate in one of two ways. First, certain types of title can pass to beneficiaries without probate. For example, property held with a "right of survivorship" or "transfer on death" provision can move relatively easily to survivors. The other most common way for property to transfer to beneficiaries without probate is through a type of contract. For example, a life insurance policy is a type of contract that names beneficiaries, and generally does not need to go through probate.
Estate planning provides many methods to avoid probate, or to reduce the burdens probate places on surviving loved ones, but the process of actually transferring the property can be tricky. It can be very important to have help from an attorney with experience in probate law.