Email FacebookTwitterMenu burgerClose thin

How Long Does Probate Take in California?


The probate process in California can be lengthier than in some other states, averaging about a year but often requiring 18 months and even longer. The stretched-out period required to settle a California estate is due in part to a requirement that the court wait four months for creditors to respond after letters of administration have been filed to empower the executor to settle the estate. Overburdened, courts can also schedule delays for necessary hearings. If you’re trying to plan your estate so you can avoid probate, consider consulting a financial advisor.

California’s Probate Process

California state law requires an estate to be settled within 12 months of an executor’s appointment. However, extensions are common and settlements often take much longer. Dying without a will lengthens the process, and other opportunities for delay exist at each step. Here are major steps in California’s probate process:

  1. Filing the petition. This involves submitting a California form DE-111 along with a death certificate and copy of the will, if there is one, to the court where the deceased lived or had property. The court will then set a hearing date, often four to six weeks in the future.  
  2. Publish hearing notice. While awaiting the hearing date, a notice alerting any interested parties must be published three times in a local newspaper. Beneficiaries get a copy of the notice by mail.
  3. Initial hearing and executor appointment. At this first hearing, four to six weeks into the process, an executor or administrator of the estate is proposed. The court approves the executor or, if none is proposed, appoints one. The court also issues letters of administration or testamentary empowering the executor to act for the estate. The executor will likely have to post a bond. This step adds a few more weeks.
  4. Validating the will. The court next determines whether a properly signed and witnessed will exists. If the will is handwritten or there is some issue, this can take a while. Otherwise, it may add only a week.
  5. Inventorying assets. Identifying and valuing all the assets of the estate often occupies up to three or four months. It can go much longer if, for instance, the executor has to have real estate or a business appraised or wait for financial institutions to issue annual account statements.
  6. Paying taxes and creditors. This involves settling with all creditors who come forward including taxing authorities. It can be done in a month but can take several months, especially if the estate has to file a tax return and wait for the Internal Revenue Service to respond.
  7. Distributing assets to beneficiaries. This step requires holding a second hearing in which the court signs off on the plan to distribute assets to beneficiaries of the estate. After that, actually distributing assets can take a couple of months but may run much longer if real estate or a business must be sold to generate cash.
  8. Closing. The court examines receipts and other documents demonstrating that all bills were paid and assets distributed to beneficiaries. It’s the final step in the probate process and may consume one to several weeks.

Causes of Delay

A senior researching how long probate can take in California.

Any individual probate case may take a somewhat different form, especially when it comes to timing. Numerous factors and developments can contribute to delays, including:

  • Lack of a will. Multiple steps in the process take longer if there is no will.
  • Someone contesting the will. This can lead to legal action that could consume years.
  • Filling out forms improperly or missing deadlines. Corrections, additional paperwork, or rescheduling of hearings, will prolong the process.
  • Many beneficiaries. Locating and contacting a large number of beneficiaries takes more time, especially if they are out of state. Having many beneficiaries also increases chances that someone will dispute some aspect of the settlement.
  • Complex estates. Large estates or those with unwieldy assets such as real estate or business ownership add to the time required to go through probate as account statements must be gathered and some assets have to be appraised and may have to be sold.

Avoiding California Probate

In some cases, estates can avoid probate. For instance, small estates valued at no more than $184,500 can qualify for summary administration, bypassing probate entirely.

Using trusts can benefit estates too large to qualify for summary administration. Trusts are not included in probate, so creating and transferring all or most of the estate’s assets into a trust can significantly speed up the process.

Insurance payouts, jointly owned property and some other asset types pass directly to beneficiaries without having to go through probate. Using insurance policies, payment-on-death accounts and other strategies to benefit beneficiaries can also reduce or eliminate the probate requirement.

Bottom Line

A woman looking for tips to expedite the probate process in California.

Despite a law requiring estates be settled within a year after an executor is appointed, California’s probate process often takes much longer. This is due to a combination of factors, including clogged courts, executors requesting deadline extensions and generous allowances for the time given creditors to submit claims. Estates without a will, contested wills and complex estates with many beneficiaries can all add to the time required. Small estates can bypass probate entirely, and careful estate planning can help larger estates reduce or avoid involvement with the process.

Estate Planning Tips

  • A financial advisor can help you plan your estate so that is passes smoothly through probate.  SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to three vetted financial advisors who serve your area, and you can have a free introductory call with your advisor matches to decide which one you feel is right for you. If you’re ready to find an advisor who can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.
  • If you want to create an estate plan, here are five steps you should take to make sure that you have a competent and complete estate plan.

Photo credit: ©, ©, ©