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How Much Probate Costs in California

A close-up of a small bronze statuette of Lady Justice before a flag of California.

In the Golden State, the passing of a loved one not only brings emotional turmoil but also the complex and often misunderstood process of probate. Understanding the probate process is a pivotal aspect of estate planning that affects families and beneficiaries when they are most vulnerable. Unfortunately, California has one of the most expensive probate processes in the U.S. When an estate goes through probate, it will not only have to pay administrative fees to the court but also state-mandated fees to the executor or personal representative and attorneys.

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H2: How Does Probate Work in California?

The probate process is a court-supervised procedure that ensures a deceased individual’s debts are settled and their assets are distributed following their will. If no will exists, probate will see to it that the person’s property is distributed in line with state succession laws. It is a structured method to settle financial obligations, determine asset distribution and confirm the validity of the will.

The executor or personal representative of the estate bears significant responsibility. In California, the executor’s duties include filing the decedent’s will with the probate court in the county in which the decedent lived. From there, the executor/personal representative is responsible for notifying all potential creditors and beneficiaries, cataloging and appraising the estate’s assets, as well as settling any outstanding debts and taxes. Furthermore, they handle the final distribution of assets to rightful heirs, guided by the decedent’s will or state law.

The duration of probate in California can vary, potentially lasting up to 18 months. This is influenced by several factors, such as the complexity of the estate and the court’s caseload. However, California offers a streamlined option for more modest estates: the small estate affidavit. This allows for transferring assets valued below the threshold without formal probate, presenting a quicker and less costly alternative.

Small Estate Limits in California

Date of DeathSmall Estate Threshold
April 1, 2022 or later$184,500
March 31, 2022 or earlier$166,250

Keep in mind that California’s small estate affidavit cannot be used to transfer real property like a home or a piece of land. Also, at least 40 days must pass before a small estate affidavit can be filed.

How Much Does Probate Cost in California?

The state flag of California blows in the wind in front of the American flag.

The costs of probate in California can vary significantly, influenced by the size and complexity of the estate, as well as the specific requirements of California probate law. The Superior Court of Santa Clara, for instance, estimates that probate in California typically costs between 4% and 7% of the estate’s total value.

Court fees are mandatory and include the costs for filing probate petitions and publishing legal notices. Additionally, the compensation for attorneys and executors is typically determined as a percentage of the estate’s value, which can escalate the overall cost for larger estates. Appraisal fees will be dependent on the valuation of the estate’s assets, and there may be charges for certifying documents.

California Probate Court Filing Fee

One of the initial steps in the probate process involves a standard filing fee, which as of 2024 is $435. This fee is obligatory when an executor or administrator files a petition to commence a probate case. It is beneficial for individuals to verify the latest filing fee with the local probate court, since these fees may vary and are subject to change. This fee represents one component of the broader picture of probate expenses, and its payment is necessary to move the process forward.

For those who find the probate filing fee to be a financial burden, the court may offer a waiver to individuals who demonstrate significant economic hardship.

However, the California Courts note that an estate may incur additional administrative fees throughout the process that can often bring these expenses to more than $1,000.

Fees to Administer the Estate

The state of California has established statutory fee schedules that outline the compensation for executors, personal representatives and attorneys engaged in the probate process. These rates are set forth as a percentage of the gross value of the estate – the total value of all assets in the estate before debts are subtracted – beginning with 4% of the first $100,000, and decreasing for subsequent value tiers.

Value of EstateProbate Fee
First $100,0004%
Next $100,0003%
Next $800,0002%
Next $9 million1%
Next $15 million0.5%
Amounts above $25 millionCourt determines fee

A personal representative or executor can choose to waive their statutory fees. The decision to do so can stem from various reasons, such as if the individual is also a beneficiary of the estate and opts to forgo additional remuneration. Additionally, legal and ethical considerations, like concerns about potential conflicts of interest or adherence to professional conduct standards, may influence the decision to waive fees. The waiving of fees is a personal decision that varies with each case and can lead to reduced expenses for the estate, benefitting all parties involved.

Extraordinary Fees

Extraordinary fees are distinguished from standard probate administration fees as they are additional compensations that may be awarded to executors, personal representatives or attorneys for performing tasks outside of the norm. These tasks typically require an exceptional level of effort or specialized expertise, justifying compensation beyond the statutory fees.

The conditions that may necessitate extraordinary fees are vast and include complex legal disputes, such as contested wills requiring extensive litigation, to managing a business that belonged to the decedent. Other instances may involve addressing environmental issues on real property or resolving complicated tax matters of the estate.

When such extraordinary circumstances are encountered, the court may approve additional compensation to adequately reward the provision of services that exceed the customary scope of probate administration, though this is neither a common nor guaranteed practice and is subject to the court’s discretion.

How to Avoid Probate in California

City Hall in Pasadena, California.

Probate can present various issues, such as the aforementioned financial burdens and delays. The impact of probate on an average family might involve prolonged waiting periods before beneficiaries can receive their inheritance, during which time they could face financial uncertainty. Fortunately, there are several strategies to circumvent the probate process in California, tailored to suit different estate sizes and individual circumstances.

While small estates may be able to forgo the formal probate process, larger estates can use a living trust to sidestep probate and preserve more discretion in asset distribution. When the trust creator dies, assets held within the living trust are transferred directly to beneficiaries, eliminating the need for court interference. Creating a living trust involves precise drafting to ensure that the transfer of assets occurs smoothly and according to the trust creator’s intentions.

In addition, Californians can take advantage of payable on death (POD) and transfer on death (TOD) designations for financial accounts and securities. These designations allow assets to immediately transfer to the designated parties upon the account holder’s death.

Bottom Line

The probate process in California can be an intricate and costly procedure for ensuring that a deceased’s estate is settled lawfully and according to their wishes or the state’s succession laws. Like a lot in California, probate in the Golden State can be expensive. The total cost, which can range from 4% to 7% – or more – of the estate’s total value includes administrative fees, statutory fees paid to the executor/personal representative and attorneys, as well as extraordinary costs associated with specific tasks and procedures required to settle an estate.

Tips for Avoiding Probate

  • Several forms of joint ownership allow a property to skip probate and automatically transfer to the surviving owner after another owner dies. However, property that’s owned via tenancy in common does not automatically bypass probate and may need to go through that legal process.
  • A financial advisor with estate planning experience may be able to help you arrange your estate in a way that bypasses probate. Finding a financial advisor doesn’t have to be hard. 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.

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