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Probate Process for Real Estate in California

When someone passes away in California and leaves behind real estate, the probate process can come into play. Probate is a court-supervised process that ensures a deceased person's assets are properly distributed to heirs and outstanding debts are paid. Here's a step-by-step guide on how the probate process works for real estate in California.

1. Determining the Necessity for Probate The first step is to ascertain whether the real estate needs to go through probate. If the decedent had a living trust, joint tenancy, or other forms of property ownership that allow for a direct transfer upon death, probate might not be necessary.

2. Petitioning the Court If probate is necessary, an interested party (often a close relative or named executor in the will) files a petition with the local California Superior Court. This petition requests the appointment of a personal representative (executor) to manage the estate.

3. Notifying Heirs and Creditors Once the petition is filed, heirs and potential creditors must be formally notified. This allows them to make claims against the estate or contest the will, if applicable.

4. Taking Inventory The appointed representative is responsible for listing all of the deceased person's assets, including real estate. A thorough property valuation must be done, usually requiring an official appraisal.

5. Settling Debts The executor uses estate assets to pay off any outstanding debts. This could mean selling the real estate if there aren't enough other assets to cover debts. However, before selling, the executor might need to get approval from the court.

6. Paying Taxes Estate and/or inheritance taxes may be due, although California doesn't have an inheritance tax. The federal estate tax may apply if the value of the estate exceeds a certain threshold. If taxes are owed, the assets of the estate, including real estate, can be used to pay these obligations.

7. Distribution of Assets Once all debts and taxes have been settled, the remaining assets, including any real estate, are distributed according to the deceased's will. If there's no will, the assets are distributed according to California's intestacy laws.

8. Closing the Estate Finally, once all assets have been distributed and obligations met, the personal representative files a final account and report with the court. Upon the court's approval, the estate is officially closed.

Special Considerations

  • Real Estate in Multiple States: If the deceased owned property in multiple states, auxiliary probate might be needed in each state where the property is located.

  • Summary Probate: For smaller estates, California offers a simplified probate process. If the total value of the estate is under a certain threshold (subject to periodic changes), it may qualify for this expedited process.

  • Avoiding Probate: Many individuals use estate planning tools like living trusts to bypass the probate process. Transferring real estate to a trust can ensure a smoother transition upon death.

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