When a loved one passes away without a will, there is a good chance that the probate court will need to supervise the process of inventorying assets, paying final bills, and distributing remaining property to heirs. To protect (first) creditors and (then) heirs, California law establishes specific requirements for managing these tasks. It can be a very confusing process.
The team at Blacksburg Law can guide you safely through that process, managing many tasks on your behalf so that you can focus on family matters. Our goal is to make matters simple and efficient so you can avoid unnecessary delays and potential mistakes and continue moving forward.
What is Probate in California?
Probate is the legal process for managing a deceased person’s property and responsibilities. California provides a simplified process for settling matters outside of court, but it only applies in limited circumstances. For instance, if an individual developed an estate plan designed to avoid probate and took steps to align assets correctly, then their assets should transfer without the need for the probate process. This is usually accomplished by using a living trust. If the value of the estate is low or property is passing to a spouse through joint ownership or beneficiary designations, then a simplified process can probably satisfy state requirements.
In many cases, however, families need to go through the entire formal probate process before they can receive property from the deceased person’s estate. Not all property becomes part of the estate, however. For instance, accounts with a beneficiary designation will pass directly to beneficiaries, and property with a co-owner might pass directly to that co-owner, depending on how the property is titled. At Blacksburg Law, we can review your circumstances and determine whether formal probate is required and if so, which property will be subject to probate.
Appointing an Administrator
When there is no will, then the court will need to appoint an administrator to manage the probate process. Section 8461 of the California Probate Code lists those who can be appointed in order of priority. A surviving spouse or registered domestic partner would be the first choice, followed by children, grandchildren, other descendants, parents, siblings, nieces and nephews, and a long list of other relatives. If none of these relatives can be appointed, the estate could be administered by a conservator of the estate, public administrator, creditor, or literally “any other person.”
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The estate administrator has responsibility for ensuring that all legal requirements are fulfilled, including paying creditors and managing all property in the best interests of the beneficiary until distribution. Mistakes can enable a creditor or beneficiary to sue the administrator, which is one reason administrators usually seek help from an attorney during the probate process.
Steps in the Probate Process
Probate generally takes 9-18 months from start to finish. Once the administrator has petitioned the court and received authorization to act for the estate, the administrator needs to safeguard property in the estate and start collecting information on debts and assets. The probate process is different in every situation, but some general steps include:
- Determining who the heirs of the estate will be and providing proper notice to them
- Inventorying assets and filing an accounting
- Notifying potential creditors in compliance with legal requirements
- Assessing information for creditors and paying obligations that are determined to be valid
- Selling property, if necessary, to satisfy debts
- Collecting final payments due and notifying payors such as the Social Security Administration
- Preparing income tax returns for the deceased person and the estate
- Reporting to the court with the final plan and accounting for legal review
- Distributing property to heirs in the accordance with the laws of intestate succession
At Blacksburg Law, we can assist with many of the duties of an administrator, such as providing proper notice to potential creditors and heirs, and preparing and submitting all documentation for the court. Perhaps more importantly, we work with you step by step during the process so that you know exactly what to do and how to do it.
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Who Inherits When There is No Will?
California laws of intestate succession determine who receives property in a deceased person’s estate if they die without a valid will. Remember that some property will not be part of the estate and will pass outside of probate, including property in a trust, accounts with beneficiary designations, and property co-owned with a right of survivorship.
Many people assume that a spouse or child automatically inherits everything when someone dies without a will, but the California intestacy laws are actually quite complex, particularly for individuals who have been married and have children. For instance, if someone dies and leaves a living spouse, that spouse inherits all the community property shared during the marriage, but the deceased person’s “separate property,” which includes assets owned before marriage or received via inheritance, is split between the spouse and other relatives. If someone dies and their spouse had died less than 15 years earlier, then that part of the estate that’s considered attributable to the predeceased spouse could pass to the predeceased spouse’s children, parents, or other relatives.
Blacksburg Law Can Make the Probate Process Easier on Your Family
Probate without a will is not necessarily more difficult than probate with a will, but the process is different and it requires considerable effort. The knowledgeable and supportive team at Blacksburg Law can reduce the burdens on your family and guide you forward to an efficient conclusion. We will answer your questions and ensure that you feel confident about each step along the way.
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