What Is Probate? It’s a Court Case

Probate is the formal court administration of a decedent’s estate (everything owned by the person who died). For every probate, there is a court case. During probate, all debts are paid first, then assets are distributed.

California isn’t known as a “difficult probate” state, but in spite of that, it can take a long time before the assets are distributed (9 to 18 months), and attorney fees can be expensive.

Summary Probate: Easier and Simpler

In our state, you may be able to use the streamlined process called “Summary Probate”. There are several ways that estates can qualify, but the simplest case is described below.

According to Wills, Estates, and Probate at ca.gov:

If you have the legal right to inherit personal property, like money in a bank account or stocks, and the estate is worth $150,000 or less, you may NOT have to go to court.

Keep in mind, this process CANNOT be used for real property, like a house. If the person left $150,000 or less in real property, including some personal property, you may be able to use a form called Petition to Determine Succession to Real Property Estates $150,000 or Less (Form DE-310). You will have to file the petition with the court, obtain and file an Inventory and Appraisal(Form DE-160), and provide notice of hearing. Talk to a lawyer to make sure you can use this simplified process in your case.

To use the simplified process for transferring personal property

First, figure out if the value of the property (the estate) is worth $150,000 or less. To do this:


  • All real and personal property.
  • All life insurance or retirement benefits that will be paid to the estate (but not any insurance or retirement benefits designated to be paid to some other person).

Do not include:

  • Cars, boats or mobile homes.
  • Real property outside of California.
  • Property held in trust, including a living trust.
  • Real or personal property that the person who died owned with someone else (joint tenancy).
  • Property (community, quasi-community, or separate) that passed directly to the surviving spouse or domestic partner.
  • Life insurance, death benefits or other assets not subject to probate that pass directly to the beneficiaries.
  • Unpaid salary or other compensation up to $5,000 owed to the person who died.
  • The debts or mortgages of the person who died. (You are not allowed to subtract the debts of the person who died.)
  • Bank accounts that are owned by multiple persons, including the person who died.

For a complete list, see California Probate Code section 13050.

If the total value of these assets is $150,000 or less and 40 days have passed since the death, you can transfer personal property by writing an affidavit. There is a special form for this that you can get from most banks and lawyers.

Help with Summary Probate

There are other scenarios that allow you to use Summary Probate. But because the rules are complex, it may be best to consult an attorney to see if the estate qualifies.

We’re here to help. Contact Jennifer Walter Fowler, attorney at law, specializing in probate, estate planning, trusts, accounting, and elder law.