How Does Probate Court Work?

You may have heard of probate before but may not know what it involves. In short, probate confirms whether a deceased person has a will and distributes their assets. However, accomplishing this can be a complex and drawn-out process.

You must understand the probate process if you have been named executor or administrator for a loved one’s estate. The following information can help you navigate the process more effectively and ensure your loved one’s last wishes are respected.

What Is Probate Court?

Probate court is where the legal issues surrounding the administration of estates are resolved. These courts specialize in issues surrounding wills, estates, guardianships, and conservatorships. The role of the court is to answer questions like the following:

  • Did the decedent have a valid will?
  • Who should execute or administer the estate?
  • What debts did the decedent have?
  • How should those debts be paid?
  • Who will benefit from the estate?
  • How should the assets be divided?

Depending on the assets involved and whether the decedent had an estate plan, the matter can be resolved quickly, or it may take months to leave the court. 

Probate Step-by-Step

So, what does the process look like? As with any court proceeding, it is complex. The specific requirements may vary depending on your local court and the needs of your case. However, the general outline of what you will do is as follows:

  1. Collect the Estate Plan Documents: Before opening a probate case, you need to inventory the decedent’s possessions and legal documents. Hopefully, your loved one has stored important documents in an easy-to-find location. You will gather paperwork such as their death certificate, their will and any other planning documents, real property deeds, vehicle titles, life insurance policies, mortgage and loan paperwork, and any other debts or bills related to their property. 
  2. Open the Case: With this information on hand, you’ll notify the local probate court to open the case. The court will then inform the executor named in the will, if one exists, or appoint an administrator over the estate. 
  3. Identify Beneficiaries: If there is a will, the executor or administrator must notify the beneficiaries that they may have the right to part of the estate. Additionally, all surviving close family members must be told of the proceedings, regardless of whether there is a will. 
  4. Appraise the Value: Estates are valued according to their worth on the decedent’s date of death. Having all property related to the estate appraised quickly but accurately is important because this information is used to determine federal income and inheritance taxes and related issues. 
  5. Cover Debts: Once an estate’s value is determined, it must cover extant debts. For example, the administrator or executor will use the estate’s assets to pay medical debts, funeral costs, and credit card balances. Mortgages and other secured loans are the exception; they can be taken over by the person who receives the property securing the loan. However, until that transfer occurs, the executor must cover monthly payments with estate assets. 
  6. Pay Taxes: The executor will pay the decedent’s final taxes after paying the debts. These include a final income tax return and federal inheritance taxes if the estate is large enough. 
  7. Distribute Remainder: Once all expenses are covered, and taxes are paid, the remaining assets can be distributed according to the will or California intestate laws. Upon that distribution, the probate case can be closed. 

What Estates Need to Go Through Probate?

Not every estate needs to go through the complete probate process. Certain people are eligible for simplified proceedings. These estates must meet the following criteria:

  • The decedent had less than $166,250 in assets
  • They did not own real estate
  • No administration proceedings are pending related to the estate

If these criteria are met, you can request that the court transfer you the property by Affidavit. You must wait at least 40 days before this process can be completed. However, for particularly small estates, this is still more efficient than going through formal probate. 

Talk to the Probate Experts

If you have questions or concerns about probate for a loved one’s estate, you can seek expert help from The Dayton Law Firm, P.C. Our estate planning and administration lawyers have decades of experience with probate in California. Discover how we can help you by scheduling your appointment with our San Jose law firm today.