Many people have estate plans these days. Depending on the person’s situation, they may have a will, a trust of some kind, as well as a Power of Attorney and an Advanced Health Care Directive. Having all of these in place can be very prudent given what can happen — under intestate succession, for instance, — if a person dies without these documents in place.
Having these documents in place is, however, only the first part of the solution. The second part is knowing what do with the documents once the person actually passes away. Death, obviously, can come unexpectedly so it is prudent to always be prepared.
This post is about a process called Small Estate Administration. I’m going to talk specifically about California, but the idea of small estate administration is not unique to California. Many other US states have it as well. As always, if you are outside of California, you need to look up the specific small estate administration process and requirements for your state. In California, the Small Estate Administration process is described in California Probate Code section 13100 as well as the sections that follow.
The basic idea behind a small administration process is that when someone passes away, an estate is created automatically. An “estate” is an intangible legal idea that encompasses all of the property (e.g. cars, bank account, stock, etc) that the deceased owned at the time of their death. The individual items in the estate can be valued at some amount which means it is possible to determine the total dollar value of the deceased’s estate.
The “small” in the small estate administration process refers to this total dollar value. In each US state that has a small estate administration process, the dollar value that qualifies as “small” varies. Under section 13101(a)(5) of the California Probate Code, estates valued at $150,000.00 or less qualify as “small” and may be administered under the California Small Estate Administration process.
If the California Small Estate Administration process can be used in your particular situation, the benefit is that it is fairly easy and straightforward. No court proceeding is required which often times means the expense — in terms of time and money — is a lot less than what a court proceeding might involve.
The bad news — and there always is bad news — is that the California Small Estate Administration process doesn’t work in every case. A variety of rules and exceptions apply. For instance, computing the total dollar value of the deceased’s estate is not as simple as just adding up the dollar value of everything the deceased owned. Under section 13050 of the California Probate Code, some items are excluded and do not count towards the $150,000.00 limit at all. Real property (e.g. land, a house, etc) generally cannot be transferred via the California Small Estate Administration process (see section 13115 of the California Probate Code). However, if the real estate is worth very little, then it might be possible to transfer if with a process similar to the Small Estate Administration process.
If you are interested, this process to transfer title to real property of very small value is described in more detail in California Probate Code section 13200, as well as the sections that follow. A case does need to be initiated in the Probate Court using, at a minimum, California Judicial Council form DE-305. The precise county in which this probate case is filed depends on whether the deceased was domiciled in California at the time of their death as well as whether they died inside or outside of California. See sections 7051 and 7052 of the California Probate Code.
If the California Small Estate Affidavit process will work for your situation, the affidavit you need is described in section 13101 of the California Probate Code.
As always, I hope that helped. I’ve included links to all the code sections I mention above. This blog post is not meant to be exhaustive, however. Always check with a lawyer directly to find out about the peculiarities that may exist in your particular situation.