In California, if the Decedent had less than $150,000 in personal and real property combined, you can collect the assets without a full estate administration. The manner that you will collect the small estate will depend on the type of property the Decedent left. Each of these methods is intended to be much less costly and quicker than a full estate administration. Please note that each of these summary procedures have limited use. If you are doing any of these procedures yourself be sure to read the appropriate referenced Probate Code Sections to verify that you are authorized to use the particular method. The information provided below is intended for use only after you have determined that the summary procedure is right for your particular situation.
If the Decedent died with real property valued at $50,000 or less at time of death, then the heirs can file with the Probate Court under Probate Code Section 13200 an Affidavit re Real Property of Small Value to transfer the title of the real property. You must wait 6 months after the date of death to file and all those claiming an interest under the Decedent's Will or intestate must present notarized signatures. In addition, the petition must be accompanied with an Inventory, along with the appropriate inventory Attachments. You will prepare the Inventory and then have the property appraised (everything but cash) by a probate referee who is approved by the court in the county where the property is located. If the Decedent resided in the state of California then the Affidavit must be filed in the Superior Court of the County where the Decedent resided. If the Decedent resided outside the state of California then the Affidavit must be filed with the Superior Court in the county where the property is located. No court order or court hearing is involved. A copy of the Affidavit must be mailed to the guardian or conservator of the Decedent's estate, if any. After filing, a certified copy of the Affidavit must be filed in the County where the property is located to legally effectuate the transfer. If heirs are fighting over who is entitled to the property then this method of transfer will not work. This is intended to be a simple uncontested means to transfer real property of nominal value.
If the Decedent died with only personal property (cash accounts, stocks, etc.) collectively under the value of $150,000 then these assets can be collected with an Affidavit for Collection of Personal Property under Probate Code Section 13100. However, you must wait 40 days post-death to submit this Affidavit. Institutions are required under the laws of the State of California to accept this form for collection of the account(s) as long as you have complied with the Probate Code. Be aware that some institutions initially refuse to accept this Affidavit. Under those circumstances you must insist that your request go up the chain of command. The institutions are notorious for telling heirs that they need a Court appointment to obtain the assets. This is simply wrong. However, note that if competing Affidavits have been submitted the institution may rightfully be worried about distributing the property to the wrong person. If the institution continues to refuse to release the property then you can petition the probate court to compel them to release the property under Probate Code Section 13105(b). If the probate court finds that the institution acted unreasonably in not releasing the property then the court is required to award you reasonable attorney's fees.
If the Decedent dies with real property over $50,000 OR a combination of personal property and real property (real property over $50,000) but collectively under the value of $150,000, then the heirs can collect the property with a Petition to Determine Succession to Real And Personal Property pursuant to Probate Code Section 13150 et seq. This Petition cannot be used unless the estate also contains real property. You must wait 40 days from the Decedent's date of death to file this Petition. In addition, the Petition must be verified and accompanied with an Inventory, along with the appropriate inventory Attachments. You will prepare the Inventory and then have the non-cash property appraised by a probate referee who is approved by the court in the county where the property is located. While you must inventory ALL property, the probate referee is required to only appraise all non-cash assets (i.e. real property, stocks etc.). While this is a simpler process than a full estate administration, it does require some of the elements of a formal probate. If the Decedent resided in the state of California then the Petition must be filed in the County where the Decedent resided. If the Decedent resided outside the state of California then the Petition must be filed in the county where the property is located. When the petition is filed the clerk will set a hearing date for the petition, which can be set as far out as 6 months, as we recently experienced in Los Angeles County. You must provide formal Notice to all heirs identified in your petition at least 15 days before the hearing. As a general rule, a week before the hearing you will be able to check on the status of your Petition on the Court's website under the Probate Notes section - using your assigned case number. The Court will reference in the Probate Notes if there are any problems with your Petition that need to be corrected prior to granting.
Because each of these procedures must be followed exactly as prescribed by the Probate Code, we always recommend seeking the advice of legal counsel who is familiar with the process. Hiring an attorney in the beginning can end up saving you a lot of time, headaches and money. We would be more than happy to quote you a fee for our services.
If none of these procedures is right for your particular situation, then we would be happy to assist you with a full estate administration.