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Step-By-Step Guide to Probate Estate in California - Werner Law Firm

Step-By-Step Guide to Probate Estate in California

Troy Werner and his family

Written by Troy Werner

Troy Werner has been an indispensable asset to The Werner Law Firm since joining in 2009, providing exceptional legal service to its clients.

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POSTED ON: January 13, 2020

The thing to remember about probate is that, in a best-case scenario, it is boring. And that is a good thing. The probate estate process is not overly complex in most cases, and it does not need to be. If you are in charge of overseeing the probate estate process, it helps to have a […]

The thing to remember about probate is that, in a best-case scenario, it is boring. And that is a good thing. The probate estate process is not overly complex in most cases, and it does not need to be. If you are in charge of overseeing the probate estate process, it helps to have a general idea of how it goes.

Probate is the way the state oversees the distribution of a person’s estate. Many assets, properties, and accounts can pass on after death outside of probate. If that is arranged, they are not part of the process. Furthermore, estates under a certain total value can opt to pass through an expedited probate process, one that is much quicker and cost-effective.

However, everything that is not accounted for with designated beneficiaries and trust documents must go through probate. Probate is mostly just paperwork. For larger estates where a full probate is necessary, it is simply a lengthy process.

People in charge of guiding your estate through the probate process after you pass away should be talented administrators and comfortable with numbers – many of the tasks an estate’s executor will be facing during the probate process involve managing properties, speaking with attorneys and legal professionals, filling out forms, signing things, reviewing paperwork, and reading the fine print.


Collect Important Estate Planning Documents

It all starts with collecting the paperwork surrounding the decedent’s (or principal’s) estate. The most important document to kick-start probate is a death certificate, but there are many other documents to compile.

The first is the decedent’s estate plan. The documents surrounding their estate plan may include a last will and testament, various trust documents, as well as ownership documents such as titles, life insurance policies, retirement account information, bank statements, deeds, corporate records, and certificates for financial instruments such as bonds and stocks.

Other information that needs to be kept safe include: tax returns, funeral and medical bills, utility and mortgage bills, credit card bills and other bills and loans.

All these documents must be compiled and kept safe. An estate planning attorney can help you sort through them and initialize the probate process. That is if you have all necessary information is at hand.


Open a Probate Estate Case

To begin the probate process, a visit to the local courts is necessary. There, you must file a petition to open a probate estate. This is where a probate attorney can be tremendously helpful.

As your probate attorney, it is their job to draft the legal documents needed to swiftly begin the process. And to notify the appropriate person to act as administrator. Working with an estate planning professional from the get-go can help ensure that you have everything you need lined up for probate.

From there, the estate administrator will have to sign a few things. The steps for opening a probate estate can be complex. They differ from state to state, but your attorney and the probate courts will walk you through the process.

Generally, several documents will be generated. Then signed, binding the administrator/executor to the probate process, admitting the will to the courts, and receiving the official legal power necessary to begin the probate process through the letters testamentary. An administrator may be named or suggested in a will or other document, but it is always up to the administrator themselves to take up the oath.


Notify Decedent's Creditors

At their earliest convenience, an administrator should begin notifying any and all creditors. This is because sending a notice to all creditors begins a time limit during which claims may be accepted.

Claims made to the estate after said time limit are not valid. The limit changes from state to state, and in the California probate code and process, it is 120 days from the opening of the estate or 60 days from the opening of the notice. There are typically no extensions to this time limit.

The most common way to send notice to creditors is through a newspaper or other local media. However, you might have require to send specific notice to creditors you know about.


Determine Decedent's Date of Death Value Assets

Once the estate has been opened, it is time to take stock. To properly value an estate, there must be a final tax return. The final estimation of the estate’s total value, as well as a full inventory of the entire estate, must be submitted within a certain time limit once the estate is opened in probate.

The contents of the estate must be valued as per the decedent’s date of death.Not whenever the valuation is scheduled. Jewelers, art dealers, and other similar individuals and companies must be contacted to get accurate information about the value of certain assets. In many cases, a professional appraiser will be needed.

Assets that do not pass through probate must still be valued at their date of death for tax purposes. Which includes life insurance policies, retirement accounts, and assets and accounts that were automatically transferred upon death (TOD/POD).


Settle Final Bills and Estate Expenses

Once you know the estate's total value, then the next step in the probate process, is to settle everything financial.That means paying off any creditor claims, settling any late fees, bills, and debts, and filing the final tax return. If the decedent left behind a widow/widower, or if you are the decedent’s surviving spouse, consult a tax attorney for assistance.

You must still file a joint tax return on the year your spouse died. Then you will qualify as a widow/widower on your tax returns two years after their death. Other considerations include the nature of jointly owned property, and interest accrued on the decedent’s bank account, which may be filed on two separate forms.Which is one for before the date of death (Form 1040), and one for afterwards (Form 1041).

If the debts and expenses left behind in the wake of the decedent’s passing exceed their liquid assets, then it is up to the administrator to decide which assets should be sold to cover costs. It is also the administrator’s job to overlook all incoming bills and determine their legitimacy and pay them. The administrator of the estate must pay any and all utilities, accounting fees, insurance costs and mortgage payments from the estate.


Initiate Final Distribution of Estate Assets

This is the final step of the probate process, to the dismay of many beneficiaries and families. Before an estate can distribute to its beneficiaries, it must completely cover its dues – which can be a lengthy process. Any expenses that have not been covered at this point, must be covered by the administrator should the estate already be distributed.

The length of probate depends on several factors, but it often lasts around a year or more. Smaller estates that can skip probate distribute much quicker. There are ways to avoid lengthy probate processes with larger estates, through experienced estate planning attorneys. To be effectively 'terminated', an estate has to distribute all its assets.


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