Time Limits on Estate Executor Duties in California

by Beverly Bird

Probating a will is often an exacting job, and an executor must also be able to perform well under pressure. Deadlines for achieving tasks loom through the entire process. With small estates, this is usually no problem, but with large, complicated estates, an executor might find herself scrambling at the last minute to finalize certain duties. California's probate time limits are similar to those in other states.

Tax Identification Number

One of an executor’s first duties is to call the IRS and request a tax identification number. She can’t use the decedent’s Social Security number for any banking or business transactions after his death, so managing the estate requires other tax identification. Once she receives a number, she has 24 hours to fax the IRS form entitled, "Application for Employer Identification Number," form SS-4, to the IRS confirming it.

Notice to the Department of Health Service

Unless she’s absolutely sure the decedent was not receiving Medi-Cal health benefits, the executor must notify the California Department of Health Services (CDHS) of his death within three months of accepting appointment. She must also file a copy of the death certificate with the CDHS.

Inventory and Appraisal

An executor’s next duty is more challenging and she must complete it within four months of taking office. She must file a list detailing every probate asset the decedent owned. Some of these assets require professional appraisals; she can’t just make an estimate of the assets’ values based on her own opinion. In California, an executor submits this list to a probate referee, a representative of the court who oversees the process. Assets that don’t require probate, such as retirement plans with named beneficiaries or property held jointly with another individual with rights of survivorship, are not included in this inventory.

Notice to Creditors and Payment

The executor must notify the decedent’s creditors of his death so they can make claims against the estate for debts owed to them. California probate law requires executors to accomplish this within four months of taking office. However, the process can extend longer if she later learns of a creditor she wasn’t aware of before the four-month deadline. In this case, she has one month after becoming aware of the creditor to send official notice. She must also file copies of these notices with the court. After receiving each claim, she has one month from the time of receipt to either deny or approve payment.

Taxes

An executor must also pay taxes on behalf of the decedent and his estate. If the estate grosses more than $8,000 in income while in operation, or more than $1,000 after payment of the estate’s debts and expenses, she must file a U.S. Fiduciary Income Tax return by April 15 of the calendar year following the decedent’s death. Income usually generates from income-bearing investments, but might also include rents and dividends. The executor must also file a personal income tax return for the decedent’s last year of life by April 15 of the following year. If the estate is of such significant value that it must pay federal or California estate taxes, these returns are due nine months from the date of the decedent's death.

Closing the Estate

An executor cannot close and settle an estate, making bequests to the will’s beneficiaries, until she has paid all debts, taxes and expenses. California law does not set any ironclad deadline by which she must do this. In most cases, an executor can get extensions of time from the court and from the IRS if she is unable to meet a time limit due to some complication beyond her control.