The California probate timeline
California law mandates that probate be completed within one year of an executor or administrator being appointed to their role by the court.
Typically it takes 12 to 18 months, though, and large or complex estates can take even longer.
Executors or administrators can file extensions to resolve any complications.
If your loved one died without a will, expect the probate process to take longer.
Other reasons for delays: difficulty with the beneficiaries, and any court claim filed against the will.
In California, state law gives executors or administrators of estates a time limit to complete probate: one year from the date they are appointed to their position. However, extensions can be requested when delays in the process occur—which is why it generally takes 12 to 18 months. And if there are issues, it can take two years or longer.
In California, probate is largely a title-clearing process of the assets your loved one left behind. For instance, title clearing on a house involves verifying that they owned the house, and that there are no liens on the property.
While the state’s filing guidelines are clear, the court-supervised process many steps and waiting periods can make matters complex, even with small estates. And complexity can lead to delays.
Understanding the scope of what is expected over the next year or more will help you avoid unnecessary delays. In addition, consulting with a probate lawyer is always helpful, to clear up any concerns or questions you have and avoid expensive mistakes later.
California timeline for full probate
The executor of the estate must wait until after the funeral to begin the probate process, which includes these important milestones:
Day 1: Initiate the probate process: File the will and a petition for probate (California Form DE-111) in Superior Court in the county where your loved one lived or owned property.
Day 1-2: File a notice of the first court hearing date, to be published in a general circulation newspaper where your loved one lived, and mail it to all named beneficiaries in the will.
Week 5-6: Typically, the first court hearing is held at this time.
Week 8: An order for probate is signed by the judge, which appoints the executor or administrator of the estate, and the court issues letters testamentary, the document that gives the executor or administrator the financial and legal power to act on behalf of the estate. An executor bond will need to be posted at this time as well.
Week 12 (within 120 days of letters testamentary): All assets should be gathered, inventoried, and appraised, then submitted this information in a court filing. In addition, send a notice to creditors.
Week 12-13: Complete all real estate sales under the Full Authority of Independent Administration of Estates Act, or IAEA. (Under the IAEA, you can apply for full or limited authority to sell property during probate without court supervision—getting this permission from the court can shorten your probate timeline.)
Week 24: Finish all real estate transactions under limited IAEA authority, if necessary.
Week 24-32: Pay all debts and creditors with estate funds.
Week 24-52: File and pay taxes.
Week 32-52: File petition for final distribution of the estate’s assets.
Week 36-52: Second court hearing date at which judge signs order allowing distribution of the beneficiaries' inheritances.
Week 40-52: Case closed.
Keep in mind, this process is for estates going through what is known as full probate. A simplified probate process is allowed in California if your loved one’s estate is valued at less than $184,500.
If there is no will
In this case, a probate judge will distribute your loved one’s assets following California law for intestate estates, the legal term for estates with no will.
First, your family will need to select someone to serve as administrator. Then that person will then schedule a hearing by contacting the Probate Department within the Superior Court of the county where your loved one lived.
Each step in the probate process takes longer when there is no will, so you’ll likely wait longer than the typical 12 to 18 months.
Next they will prepare the Petition for Probate (Form DE-111) to initiate probate—the same first step as an executor of an estate with a will would take.
Intestate estates will follow the same timeline as the one described above. But each step in the probate process takes longer when there is no will, so you’ll likely wait longer than the typical 12 to 18 months.
Most common probate delays
Some probate cases take years to resolve. Common reasons include large and complex estates, difficulty with the beneficiaries, and any court claim filed against the will.
Often, these issues are related, which add to the administrative tasks and emotional stress.
And as mentioned above, probate takes longer if there is no will—or if the existing will was invalidated, or if any of the interested parties dispute who should be appointed as the administrator.
In addition, some beneficiaries may be difficult to find. The more beneficiaries there are and the further they live across state lines, the slower the probate process.
In addition, the more beneficiaries there are, the greater the likelihood that some dispute will arise over the estate distribution or management. These beneficiaries can file motions that require a court decision in order to proceed or even hire their own attorneys to monitor the probate process.
The more beneficiaries there are, the greater the likelihood that some dispute will arise over the estate distribution or management.
The property your loved one owned or had an interest in can also delay closing the estate. If the person owned a percentage of a business or still owed money on a piece of real estate, then the executor can only distribute equity in a property or business venture.
In some cases, personal property may be uniquely valuable and its value and ownership disputed, such as artwork or jewelry. These situations can be financially and emotionally complicated and require an appraiser. If an estate must file a federal tax return, the IRS must respond before the estate can be closed, which can add 6 to 8 months.
Although California law requires probate to be completed within one year of an executor’s or adminstrator’s appointment, extensions are common. The personal representative must file an item status and estimated date of completion report to the court.
If this is not filed, the beneficiaries can ask the court to order an accounting or take other actions to close probate. The court can also choose to remove the original personal representative and appoint someone else.
California state laws are designed to allow an estate to be settled easily with clear guidelines and timeframes. However, there can be significant challenges to this efficiency, especially when the estate is large and complex. And each estate being settled may have to file a unique combination of paperwork depending on the property to be inherited and the tax implications.
As in any other state, the personal representative needs to be ready and able to take on this administrative and emotional journey. Always remember, though, if the process becomes too complex or daunting, a certified attorney can help get the matter back on track.
You may be eligible for free bereavement support. Empathy can help with everything from funeral planning to estate administration, with step-by-step guidance and real-time expert support. Many people get free premium access to Empathy as a benefit with their life insurance claim. We partner with New York Life, Guardian Life Insurance Company, Bestow, Lemonade, and other leading carriers. When you make your life insurance claim, talk to your representative about whether Empathy is a benefit they offer.
If you’re the executor of an estate in California
California’s executor pay structure one of the most unusual things about the state’s executor laws, which are generally not as stringent as they are in other states.7 min read
How to handle a probate property sale in California
If you need to sell real estate in California during probate, understanding state regulations is crucial. They affect everything from how you set the price to how quickly you must complete the sale.7 min read
Questions to ask a probate lawyer during your first meeting
You’ll want to get clarity on several key issues before making a commitment, to make sure the attorney is up to the challenge that your loved one’s estate presents.6 min read