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Navigating the Probate Process: What You Need to Know

Posted by James Burns | Apr 23, 2024 | 0 Comments

According to the American Bar Association, over 50% of Americans do not have a will or estate plan in place, leaving their loved ones to navigate the complex probate process without guidance (American Bar Association, 2022). If you find yourself in this situation, understanding the probate process and its requirements can help you avoid costly mistakes and ensure a smoother transition of assets.


What is Probate?

Probate is the legal process of settling a deceased person's estate, including distributing their assets, paying debts, and resolving any disputes. In California, probate is governed by the California Probate Code. The probate process can be lengthy and complex, taking anywhere from 6 months to 2 years or more to complete.


The Probate Process: A Step-by-Step Guide

1. Filing a Petition

  • Actionable Tip: File the petition promptly to avoid delays in the process.


  • Mistake to Avoid: Failing to provide required documentation, such as the original will and death certificate.


  • Relevant California Statute: California Probate Code §8000-8001


  • Example: John's family waits 6 months to file the petition, causing a delay in the process and resulting in additional legal fees.


  • Additional Information: The petition must be filed in the correct court and must include all required information, such as the names and addresses of all beneficiaries and heirs.


2. Appointing a Personal Representative

  • Actionable Tip: Choose a personal representative who is familiar with the estate and has the necessary expertise.


  • Mistake to Avoid: Appointing someone who is not bonded, as required by law.


  • Relevant California Statute: California Probate Code §8400-8401


  • Example: Sarah is appointed personal representative, but she has no experience with probate and makes costly mistakes, causing the estate to be tied up in court for an additional year.
  • Additional Information: The personal representative has a fiduciary duty to act in the best interests of the estate and must follow the instructions in the will.


3. Inventory and Appraisal

  • Actionable Tip: Conduct a thorough inventory to avoid missing assets.


  • Mistake to Avoid: Failing to obtain appraisals for high-value assets.


  • Relevant California Statute: California Probate Code §8800-8801.


  • Example: The personal representative fails to include a valuable piece of real estate in the inventory, leading to a dispute among beneficiaries and additional legal fees.


  • Additional Information: The inventory must include all assets, including real property, personal property, and intellectual property.


4. Noticing Creditors

  • Actionable Tip: Publish notice in a local newspaper to reach unknown creditors.


  • Mistake to Avoid: Failing to notify known creditors, leading to potential lawsuits.


  • Relevant California Statute: California Probate Code §9050-9051.


  • Example: A creditor comes forward after the estate has been distributed, claiming they were not properly notified and seeking payment from the beneficiaries.


  • Additional Information: Creditors must be notified within a certain timeframe, and failure to do so can result in legal consequences.


5. Distributing Assets

  • Actionable Tip: Ensure all debts and taxes are paid before distributing assets.


  • Mistake to Avoid: Distributing assets without court approval, potentially leading to legal issues.


  • Example: The personal representative distributes assets without court approval, leading to a dispute among beneficiaries and additional legal fees.


  • Additional Information: The distribution of assets must follow the instructions in the will and must be approved by the court.


Common Probate Mistakes to Avoid

  • Failing to update beneficiary designations on retirement accounts and life insurance policies.


  • Not considering the tax implications of asset distribution
  • Not properly transferring real property


  • Failing to notify all beneficiaries and heirs.


  • Not accounting for all assets and debts


  • Not seeking legal advice when necessary


The Frustrating, Expensive, and Time-Consuming Reality of Probate Court in California

  • The average cost of probate in California is 5-10% of the estate's value (California Probate Code, 2022).


  • The average time to complete probate in California is 12-18 months (California Courts, 2022).


  • In 2020, there were over 30,000 probate cases filed in California, with a backlog of over 10,000 cases (California Courts, 2022).


  • The probate process can be emotionally draining and cause conflict among family members and beneficiaries.


  • Probate court can be a complex and intimidating process, especially for those who are not familiar with legal procedures.


How to Avoid Probate

  • Create a living trust to hold assets and avoid probate.


  • Name beneficiaries on retirement accounts and life insurance policies.


  • Hold property in joint tenancy or community property.


  • Consider a "pour-over" will to transfer assets to a trust.


  • Consult with an experienced estate planning attorney to determine the best approach for your situation.


Here is the breakdown of the costs of a $1,000,000 estate in Probate in California.


  • Statutory Fees:
    The personal representative and their attorney are entitled to the same compensation for ordinary services. For an estate with a value of $1,000,000, the statutory attorney's fees are $23,000, and the personal representative's compensation is also $23,000. This is a combined fee of $46,000.00 before heirs see anything.


  • Extraordinary Fees:
    Extraordinary fees may be charged by the personal representative or their attorney if the services they provide go beyond typical executor duties or probate attorney duties.


  • Court Costs and Other Expenses:
    These costs add an additional several thousand dollars to the statutory (and extraordinary) legal fees to make Probate Administration notoriously expensive in addition to being very time-consuming.


  • Initial out-of-pocket probate expenses:
    On average, the initial out-of-pocket probate expenses in California are about $2,500. The personal representative pays the $2,500 out of pocket to the attorney. This is used as a retainer for the court filing fees and other expenses. At the end of probate, the person who paid the $2,500 is reimbursed by the estate.


  • Other costs:
    Here is an estimated breakdown of what you can expect to pay out of pocket in a California probate:


  • Initial court filing fee: $465.


  • Publication: $205 - $1,000 (on average $250 - $500).


  • Probate Referee: The fee is 1/10 of 1% of the estate value (i.e., if the house is appraised at $500,000, then 1/10 of 1% is $500).


  • Bond: Probate generally takes one year to complete; therefore, the court imposes a bond on the personal representative to ensure that the personal representative does not run away with the money. The fee will depend on the value of the estate (i.e., if the net value of the estate is $200,000, then bond costs might be $500 - $800 for the year depending on your credit score). Keep in mind that an experienced attorney might be able to convince the judge to waive the fee.


  • Final petition court filing fee: $465.



Navigating the probate process can be complex and overwhelming. By understanding the steps involved and avoiding common mistakes, you can ensure a smoother transition of assets and avoid costly legal issues. If you're dealing with probate, consider consulting with an experienced attorney to guide you through the process.

Call to Action

Don't navigate the probate process alone. Contact the Law Office of James Burns at (949) 305-8642 or visit to schedule a consultation. With over 24 years of experience, James Burns can help you navigate the probate process and ensure a smooth transition of assets.

About the Author

James Burns

Estate Planning, Asset Protection, Business and Real Estate Transactions, nutraceutical Law and franchising:


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