How to Start the Probate Process in California

When someone dies, many administrative tasks must be completed. You’re planning the funeral, taking responsibility for your loved one’s home and property, executing their will, and winding up any final concerns. If you’re responsible for handling your loved one’s estate, it’s easy to become overwhelmed and struggle to know where to start. 

However, many of these tasks are routine parts of probate. You can work with a skilled estate administration attorney to help you navigate the probate process from start to finish. When you’re just starting, your attorney will guide you through the steps to begin probate and ensure you’re on the right path to fulfilling your loved one’s last wishes. 

1. Find the Will

Before doing anything else, you should look for the decedent’s will. Ideally, they wrote a will and told multiple people where to find it, such as in a shared safety deposit box or a home safe. However, wills may be stored in surprising places, so if you’re unsure whether your loved one wrote a will, it’s worth respectfully searching their home. 

2. Identify the Beneficiaries and Fiduciaries

If there is a will in place, read it carefully and note who it names as an heir or beneficiary. It may also list an executor, trustees, other fiduciaries, and guardians or conservators for dependents. You will need to contact all these people, sometimes multiple times, so it’s useful to create a list of names and contact information as soon as possible. 

3. Send Notices of Death

You’ll need to notify everyone mentioned in the will about your loved one’s death. If there is no will, you must notify their immediate relatives, including children, grandchildren, parents, siblings, and potential aunts, uncles, cousins, and nieces and nephews. 

Furthermore, you should notify other potential interested parties to prevent further financial interactions with their estate. These include:

  • Their employer
  • The DMV
  • Social Security and Medicaid
  • Insurance companies
  • The Post Office
  • Their landlord and utility providers
  • Subscription companies
  • Financial institutions

For these notices, you will likely need to provide a copy of their death certificate to confirm their passing. 

4. Inventory the Estate

Probate is intended to ensure a decedent’s assets are distributed according to their last will or state inheritance law. However, before this can be done, you’ll need a list of all the assets and liabilities the decedent left behind. 

Some well-organized people with strong estate plans will keep estate inventories in the same place as their wills. If this is not the case in your situation, you’ll need to create a list of:

  • Bank accounts
  • Stocks, bonds, and investments
  • Life insurance policies
  • Real property titles and deeds
  • Corporate records
  • Credit cards
  • Unpaid medical debts
  • Income or benefits statements
  • Property and income taxes
  • Utility bills
  • Subscriptions

Building this list from scratch may be overwhelming if you have never probated an estate. If so, proceed to the next step. 

5. Talk to an Estate Lawyer

You do not have to handle probate alone. In fact, it’s often better to get expert legal counsel. If you haven’t already done so, it’s worth making an appointment with a skilled estate administration attorney to discuss your concerns and the best way to proceed with the probate process. They can help you perform an estate inventory to ensure the proceedings go smoothly if necessary.

6. File a Petition to Open Probate and Attend the Hearing

With your attorney and a comprehensive asset-liability inventory on hand, you’re finally ready to open your probate case. Your attorney will ensure you submit the correct paperwork to begin the process. 

The court will schedule a hearing to appoint an official estate representative. Once this occurs, you have officially begun the probate process, and you can start paying liabilities and distributing their remaining assets. 

Get Help From Certified Estate Attorneys

Probate is complicated. If you’re responsible for a loved one’s estate, it’s worth talking to the experts. At The Dayton Law Firm, P.C., we have certified estate planning specialists on staff who are available to help you understand and navigate the probate process. Schedule your consultation today to learn how we can simplify your probate responsibilities and ensure your loved one’s last wishes are honored.