Frequently Asked Questions in California Estate Planning: Probate
Probate in California courts can be a mystifying process. Here are the answers to some of the most common questions we receive about probate. Please feel free to contact the South Bay offices of Samuel Ford Law with any additional questions or concerns you may have about the probate process in Torrance or Los Angeles County.
What is probate?
Probate is the name given to the process of closing out the financial accounts, distributing the assets, and paying the debts of someone who has passed away (labeled the “decedent” in legal proceedings). The probate process occurs whether someone has died with a will (known as dying “testate”) or without a will (known as dying “intestate.”) The process of probate is overseen by a California Probate Court judge and is handled on the decedent’s behalf by their personal representative or executor. The personal representative is someone who has either been named by the decedent in their will or was selected by the court if no personal representative was named or no will exists.
What happens during the probate process in California?
The probate process can be summarized with a list of several main events that occur during the process:
Appointing the executor or personal representative: Once the Probate Court receives an official copy of the will, the judge can ensure that it appears valid and designate the person named in it as the executor of the decedent’s estate.
Notification of creditors and heirs: Anyone who may be entitled to receive a portion of the decedent’s assets, such as a closely-related family member or someone to whom the decedent owed money during their lifetime, must receive official notice of the decedent’s passing and any important dates in the probate process.
Identification of assets: The personal representative must identify all property, financial accounts, investments, or other assets owned by the decedent.
Pay creditors and collect outstanding debts: The personal representative should ensure that the estate receives any money owed to it. Once all assets have been identified and gathered, the personal representative will go about paying any outstanding debts. Once these debts are paid and the personal representative knows the final value of the remaining funds, a final tax return must be filed for the estate.
Distribute any remaining assets: The heirs of the estate will receive the gifts designated for them once all other obligations have been met.
Final closeout of the estate: Once all debts have been paid, legal challenges have been resolved, gifts have been distributed, and taxes have been paid, the court will close out the estate.
How long does the probate process take?
The length of the probate process can vary greatly, depending on such factors as the complexity and net worth of the estate and whether anyone has mounted a legal challenge to the validity of the decedent’s will. In theory, probate can take as little as 12 months. However, if other complications arise during probate, the process could last for years.
Are there any assets that don’t need to go through probate?
Yes. Certain assets, such as assets held in a trust, property owned jointly where the right of survivorship exists, life insurance policies, and accounts designated as being payable or transferable upon death might not need to go through probate before the decedent’s heirs can gain access to them.
Additionally, some California estates may qualify for what are known as small estate alternatives. When estates are valued at relatively low amounts, beneficiaries may be able to file certain petitions that will allow the property to pass to the rightful heir without being held up in probate. A probate attorney at Samuel Ford Law can help you determine whether a small estate alternative might apply in your case.
Will I need to hire an attorney?
It is not mandatory to hire an attorney to go through the probate process in California. With that said, it is important for personal representatives to be realistic about handling the probate process without legal help. Probate is complex, time-consuming, and can be emotionally draining when done on behalf of a beloved family member. Navigating the California state court system is never simple, but it can feel especially difficult while grieving the loss of a loved one. The Torrance probate law firm of Samuel Ford Law can manage the unpleasant and draining aspects of probate on your behalf.
During probate, legal matters often arise that should best be handled by an attorney, such as challenges to the validity of the will, the assertion of debts by creditors that the personal representative does not believe are legitimate, or a dispute over the taxes owed by the estate. By hiring an attorney early in the probate process, personal representatives can rest assured that help is at hand to manage these legal issues as they arise, rather than having to find a lawyer and bring them up to speed after a lawsuit has been filed.
Questions about Probate in the South Bay? Call Samuel Ford Law in Torrance
For knowledgeable and trustworthy legal help with the process of probate in the Los Angeles South Bay, contact the Torrance offices of Samuel Ford Law for a consultation on your case.