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What is Probate?
Probate is the process used by the court to supervise the processes that transfer legal title of property from the estate of the person who has died (the "decedent") to his or her beneficiaries.
Usually, you have to fill out court forms and appear in court to:
Prove to the Court that the Will is valid (this is usually routine),
Appoint a legal representative with authority to act on behalf of the decedent,
Identify and inventory the decedent's property, and have that property appraised,
Pay debts and taxes, and
Distribute the remaining property according to the terms of the Will or to the decedent's heirs.
If the person who died did not have any property to transfer, probate is usually not necessary. The deceased person’s survivors may decide to open a probate if there are debts owed or if there is a need to set a deadline for creditors to file claims. When there is property to transfer, the probate process also provides for the distribution of the estate's property to the decedent's heirs.
The term "probate estate" refers to any property subject to the authority of the probate court. Assets distributed outside the probate process are part of a person's “non-probate estate.” California has "simplified procedures" for transferring property for estates worth under a certain amount (from $20,000 to $150,000 depending on the circumstances and the kind of property). There is also an easy way to transfer property to a surviving spouse, property held in Joint Tenancy or Community Property with Right of Survivorship, and life insurance and retirement benefits.