When a person dies, any property and assets that are left behind, these are usually processed through what is called probate. Probate laws differ from state to state, and in California, it is easy to avoid probate court.
For one thing, it isn’t necessary for all estates. Notably, community property with the spouse and living trusts are exempt from probate, and so are assets owned in joint tenancy with survivor clauses. Other assets exempt from probate are accounts with a named beneficiary after death. When assets have a total value of less than the state cap, currently $150,000, the estate may also be exempt from probate, and will require heirs to simply execute an affidavit or alternatively pass through a quick summary probate.
Inherited assets with no value limit can be transferred to a registered domestic partner or spouse using a Spousal Property Petition or the domestic partner equivalent. Technically, it still goes through probate but it is a quick, streamlined procedure.
When probate is required, it is mostly handled according to the rules prescribed in the Independent Administration of Estates Act (Cal. Probate Code § 10400), which empowers the executor to act independent of the probate court in most things. It can take from 6 to 12 months to go through once the executor of a will or a court-appointed administrator starts the process by filing a Petition for Probate at the appropriate county court.
Typically, the filing fee is $400, although some counties may charge a little more. Los Angeles County, for example, charges $435 for a first filing in 2014. If everything goes swimmingly, the process goes faster. If not, such as when the will is contested or other problems arise, Los Angeles lawyers will be needed to sort it out.
Probate in California is largely a matter of getting a ton of paperwork done; many of the forms that need to be filled out are available online for free from the website of the California Judicial Council. Technically, a lawyer is not needed to do this. However, problems can arise when the procedure is not followed correctly so a probate lawyer is usually recommended when regular probate is required. Probate lawyers in California are usually paid a statutory fee, a percentage of the total value of the assets that pass through probate. The rate will depend on what the statute currently dictates.