How to Settle a Small Estate in California

By Joe Stone

California law does not require you to use the probate court when the decedent's estate is $150,000 or less in value and hence classified as a "small estate." You can use a simplified procedure to transfer the estate property to the beneficiaries without a court order. However, in order to use this procedure for real property, such as a home or vacant lot, the real property must be valued at $50,000 or less.

California law does not require you to use the probate court when the decedent's estate is $150,000 or less in value and hence classified as a "small estate." You can use a simplified procedure to transfer the estate property to the beneficiaries without a court order. However, in order to use this procedure for real property, such as a home or vacant lot, the real property must be valued at $50,000 or less.

Small Estates with Personal Property Only

For estates with personal property only, you can use an affidavit or declaration that complies with California Probate Code Section 13100 to acquire the property. This procedure is used for such property as financial accounts, stocks and mutual funds. You give the custodian of the property, such as a bank, the affidavit or declaration along with a certified copy of the decedent's death certificate. Some financial institutions have their own form of affidavit or declaration for your use. At least 40 days must have passed since the decedent's death before this procedure can be used.

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Small Estates with Real and Personal Property

If the decedent's estate includes both real and personal property, you use the same form of affidavit or declaration that complies with Probate Code Section 13100 with the additional requirement of attaching to the form an inventory and appraisal of the real property. The inventory and appraisal must be done by a probate referee appointed by the California State Controller's office. Once the inventory and appraisal is complete, you can submit your affidavit or declaration with the attachment to a custodian of the personal property and take possession of it.

Small Estates Transfer of Real Property

Real property valued at less than $50,000 can be transferred from the decedent’s name to the appropriate beneficiaries by using the simplified procedure set forth in Probate Code Section 13200. This code section requires the use of a form published by the California Judicial Council called "Affidavit Re Real Property of Small Value ($50,000 or less)." A copy of the inventory and appraisal and a certified copy of the decedent's death certificate must be attached to the completed form. The form is filed with the clerk of court in the county where the real property is located. The court clerk is required to determine that the form and attachment are complete. A properly completely form with the required attachments will be accepted for filing by the clerk, who will then issue a certified copy of the form without the attachments. You record the certified copy with the county recorder’s office where the real property is located.

Small Estate Procedures are Optional

The simplified procedures for small estates allowed by the California Probate code are optional. You are entitled to open formal probate proceedings to administer the decedent's estate regardless of the value of the estate property. In some circumstances, such as when you anticipate a dispute among the potential beneficiaries, it may be advisable to use formal probate proceeding so that the court can supervise the administration of the estate.

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How Small Estate Affidavit Works in California

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Timeframe for Probating a Will

Probate exists not only to simplify the process of distributing the assets of a deceased person, known as the decedent, but also to ensure that creditors receive the payments to which they are entitled from the decedent's estate. A personal representative, also known as an executor, works with the probate court to distribute assets according to the decedent's wishes. State laws dictate how long an estate can remain in probate.

What Assets Need to Be Listed for Probate?

If you are appointed as the executor or administrator of an estate, one of the most important responsibilities you have is to gather and catalog all of the decedent’s property to be included in his probate estate. A probate estate asset is property the decedent owned not automatically transferred to someone else upon his death due to contract or operation of law. The rules of probate are defined by state law; therefore, standards may vary depending on where the decedent lived.

Who Signs an Inventory of an Estate and What Information Is Important?

The inventory of an estate is signed by the estate's executor, or personal representative. The personal representative is legally bound to preserve the estate's assets for the people who are inheriting the assets, by doing all that he can to ensure that the estate's value does not decrease during probate. Before he can preserve the value of the estate's assets, however, he must know what those assets are and he must know their value, as of the deceased's date of death. In other words, he needs an inventory.

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