You may not need to go to probate court to obtain title to property belonging to a dead person. Figuring out if you have to go to probate court depends on many issues, like the amount of money involved, the type of property involved, and who is claiming the property.
One of the ways to decide if you can use a simplified procedure to transfer property is to figure out whether any of the assets have named beneficiaries. That means that the decedent, when alive, named one or more people as beneficiaries to receive the asset when they died. We listed some examples earlier, but here are some common ones:
- Life insurance proceeds,
- Retirement accounts, pensions, or annuities
- Bank accounts
- Property in a living trust
Another important way is to figure out how the property is owned (the type of title ownership). For example:
- Was the property owned in joint tenancy? If so, the surviving owner gets the entire property.
- Was the property community property with the right of survivorship? If so, the surviving spouse or partner would likely get the entire asset.
- But, it can get complicated. If the asset was community property but there was no explicit right of survivorship, the decedent’s spouse or partner may get the decedent’s half, but it will depend on whether there is a will and the property was divided in other ways. It may also be necessary to make sure that the property is in fact community property and was not somehow changed to separate property through an agreement or in some other way. You may need to talk to a lawyer to sort out these questions.
- Was the bank account owned by different people? Or was it to be transferred to one person upon death?
Benefits like social security survivor benefits or benefits as a dependent of a deceased veteran can usually be collected without probate court.
It can be difficult to figure out whether you can use a simplified informal process to transfer property. In addition to assets that already have a designated beneficiary (like a life insurance or a bank account), estates with a value of $166,250 or less may qualify for a non-formal probate case. Also, if you were married to, or in a registered domestic partnership with, the decedent, you may be able to follow a simple process to have your property rights determined.
Generally, though, deciding if you qualify for a simple procedure may be difficult. So talk to a lawyer if you are not sure.
from California Courts