If you need formal probate

This page has an overview of what to expect in formal probate. A formal probate case has 3 main parts: opening a case, administering the estate, and closing the estate. The entire process typically takes 9 to 18 months and can sometimes take even longer.

Probate court fees and costs

Typical costs of a probate case

  • Filing fees and other fees. There will be fees to file documents with the court, to publish a notice in a newspaper, to have an appraiser such as a probate referee value property, and other expenses of administration. The costs of administration are often well over $1,000.00 and can be much more.
  • Fees to administer the estate. The fees to administer an estate are generally set by law as a percentage of the total value of the estate. Fees may be paid from the estate to the personal representative and, if there is one, the personal representative’s attorney. Fees are usually not paid until the end of the entire probate case. 
  • Hiring a lawyer (an attorney). The personal representative can hire a lawyer if they want. The fees for a lawyer are set by law and are based generally on a percentage of the total value of the estate. Fees may be higher depending on how difficult the case is. Generally, the lawyer is paid at the end of the case from the money left in the estate. If the personal representative does not hire a lawyer but has questions along the way, they can often pay for a consultation with a lawyer to help answer a question while continuing to represent themselves. 

Many fees must be paid upfront, but are reimbursed from the estate

Typically, these fees are paid out of the estate. But, usually, the personal representative will need to pay them upfront and get paid back from the estate later.

Overview of a probate case

  • Open a case

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    You (the person who starts the case) are called the “petitioner." You must file forms with the court to “open probate.” You file a Petition for Probate (form DE-111) along with other court forms. 

    File the case in the county where the person who died (the decedent) lived. If the decedent lived outside of California but died owning property in California, file the case in the California county where the decedent owned property.

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    You must either pay a filing fee to start the case or apply to the court for a fee waiver if you can show financial hardship. Typically, the fee is $435.00. You can usually get these fees paid or reimbursed from the estate funds.

    When the probate case is filed, the probate clerk stamps the forms and gives you a court date (called a hearing) and a department number. At the court date, the judge will appoint a personal representative. 

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    You must give notice of the hearing to the decedent's family members, and to anyone who may have the right to get some part of the estate. Another adult who is not a party to the case mails the notice. You cannot mail the notice.

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    You must arrange for notice to be published in a newspaper of general circulation in the city where the person who died lived. The newspaper will charge a fee for this, which you can get reimbursed for from the estate later.

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      There is a court date when a judge decides who to appoint to be in charge as the personal representative of the estate (also called the “administrator” or “executor”). You should go to the court date in case the judge has questions. If the judge has no questions about the petition, notice, or publication, then the judge may grant the petition and appoint a personal representative.

    • Administer the estate

      Once appointed, the personal representative will have to administer the estate. This means managing all the decedent's assets and liabilities. 

      For example, they will have to: 

      • Take inventory: The personal representative gathers the assets and prepares an Inventory and Appraisal (form DE-160) to be filed. The personal representative usually will also need to contact a probate referee to value the nonmonetary (non-cash) assets.
      • Notice to creditors and pay debts: The personal representative must provide formal notice to creditors with the Notice of Administration to Creditors (form DE-157). If there is money to pay the estate's debts, the representative will pay the debts from the estate.
      • Taxes: A final personal income tax return is prepared for the person who died. If the estate earned any money (such as interest or profit in a sale), the personal representative will have to turn in a final estate tax return.
      • Reports to the court: The personal representative reports to the court on how the estate was handled. Courts usually require a report a year after the personal representative is appointed. The report is scheduled for a hearing so the judge can review how the personal representative handled everything. If more time is needed to take care of the assets and liabilities, the court will give the personal representative more time to do so. 
    • Close the estate

      When the personal representative has finished administering the estate and is ready to distribute the remaining assets to beneficiaries, they will file a final report, final account, and petition for final distribution. A final account does not have to be filed if all the persons entitled to distribution of the estate sign a written waiver of account or a written acknowledgment of receipt of their share of the estate 

      The court will set a hearing date for the judge to make a decision about distribution. The personal representative must have an adult who is not a party to the case give notice of the hearing to interested persons. At the hearing, the judge will decide whether to approve the final distribution of the remaining assets to the beneficiaries.

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