Who qualifies for simplified probate in California

5 min read

What to know about California’s simplified probate process

  • In California, estates valued below $184,500 are considered small estates and can go through a simplified probate process.

  • If your loved one’s estate meets that threshold, instead of full probate you can file a shorter series of documents to probate court.

  • Assets inherited by the surviving spouse or registered domestic partner can also be transferred with a streamlined procedure.

  • To transfer ownership of only those assets that you stand to inherit (instead of the entire estate), you can also file a small estate affidavit.

What kind of probate process you go through in California—and how long it will take—largely depends on one thing: Is it a big estate or a small estate?

California defines a small estate as one with qualified assets valued at less than $184,500 at the time of your loved one’s death. If the estate meets that threshold, then state law outlines a much shorter process that ultimately leads to the transfer of your loved one’s assets to the people who inherit them.

Simplified probate for small estates 

If the estate includes both personal and real property, but still meets the simplified probate threshold, the administrator can use the affidavit process but also file these forms:

  • Petition to Determine Succession to Real Property

  • Order Determining Succession to Real Property

  • Personal Property, Inventory and Appraisal, and Notice of Hearing

When an estate below the threshold for formal probate does not include real property, such as a house, the executor or administrator of the estate can complete a California small estate affidavit form (available from the county’s probate court office or website) that lists all the assets the person owned and their value.

Filing a small estate affidavits

With small estate affidavits, you can quickly transfer specific assets that you stand to inherit, as opposed to the entire estate. Any beneficiary can file a small estate affidavit, whether you are the executor or not. Once approved, it allows financial institutions to release the assets to the beneficiary or beneficiaries.

The affidavit certifies that there is no current or past probate proceeding. Or if there is a probate proceeding pending, the executor or administrator must consent to the affidavit in writing and certify that all of the unsecured debts have been paid.

In addition to the signatures of all beneficiaries entitled to inherit the listed assets, a small estate affidavit in California should include the following documents: 

  • A certified copy of the death certificate

  • Proof that the person owned the property listed and proof of value (e.g., bank statements, storage receipts, stock certificates, appraisals, etc.)

  • Proof of your identity (a driver’s license, state ID, or passport)

Many financial institutions also require a notary’s signature and stamp on the affidavit to collect the assets (and may have additional custom forms). In general, beneficiaries must wait 40 days after the person’s death before collecting the property. 

Spousal petitions

Assets inherited by the surviving spouse or registered domestic partner can also be transferred with a streamlined procedure, using a document called a Spousal (or Domestic Partner) Property Petition. The probate court is involved, but the process is simple, and there is no limit on the value of property. 

Calculating the size of the estate

To get a sense if the estate is at or below the $184,500 threshold (at the time of death), add up the value of assets subject to probate and do not include assets that are exempt. (for instance, payable-on-death accounts or jointly owned property, which do not have to go through probate). 

Common assets subject to probate

  • Assets solely owned by the person who died (except those left by will or intestate succession to the surviving spouse)

  • One-half of each asset owned as community property with a spouse 

  • Any portion of an asset where the asset is owned as tenants in common with other people

  • Personal property assets, such as furniture and jewelry

  • All life insurance or retirement benefits that will be paid to the estate (but not to a specific beneficiary)

Assets not subject to probate

  • Real or personal property held in joint tenancy with another person(s)

  • Assets held in trust

  • Accounts with named beneficiaries (e.g., life insurance policies, death benefits, and retirement accounts)

  • Bank accounts with the dead person named as “trustee” for someone else

  • Accounts registered as “payable on death” (POD) or “transfer on death” (TOD) to a named beneficiary

  • Property passing to the surviving spouse or registered by the spouse as “community property with right of survivorship” 

  • Cars, boats, or mobile homes

  • Real property outside of California

  • Unpaid salary or other compensation up to $16,625

  • Debts or mortgages of the person who died (but you cannot subtract debts) 

  • Bank accounts owned by multiple people, including the person who died

Appraisal process

Because an inventory and proof of value must be submitted for both cash and non-cash assets as part of the affidavit process, professional appraisal is required in many cases. In California, estate appraisers who evaluate non-cash assets are known as probate referees. Some estate assets can be appraised by the executor, including:

  • Cash

  • Refund checks

  • Money market funds

  • Money in brokerage accounts

  • Insurance policies

  • Retirement plans

  • Annuities payable in lump sum amounts

If the property is uniquely valuable, such as antiques or works of art, the executor may want to hire an independent expert so that the valuation is as accurate as possible. This may also help settle disputes among beneficiaries as to the property’s real or perceived value. 

As in any other state, estates settled in California are able to take advantage of common strategies to reduce the amount of the estate subject to probate, estate taxes and taxable distributions to heirs, such as Payable on Death (POD) and Transfer on Death (TOD) accounts, trusts, and gifts.

While administering an estate may be relatively simple, deciding if you qualify for the simplified procedures may be difficult. If you are not clear whether you qualify or you are grieving and need help, contacting a qualified California estate attorney may be a worthwhile investment.

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.