Probate refers to the court-supervised process of distributing a person's assets after they have died. In California, the probate court handles cases in which a person died "testate," or with a will, or "intestate," without a will. If the person left a will, their property is distributed according to the terms of the will. The process is overseen by the executor named in the will. If the person died without a will, their property is distributed to surviving relatives under the California intestacy statute; the process is overseen by an administrator appointed by the court.
Probate tends to be a lengthy process in California. If there is a will, the court must make sure it is valid. If there is no will or trust, the court must be satisfied that all living relatives who are entitled to a share of the estate have been identified. It usually takes about four to six weeks to appoint an administrator or executor of the estate. Once this is done, notice must be sent to all creditors of the estate. The creditors are given a minimum of four months to respond to this notice.
If the estate is large and subject to federal estate tax, an estate tax return must be prepared and filed with the IRS, which will take additional time. If the decedent's financial affairs were complicated or if disputes arise over the distribution of assets, the process will take even longer.
Not every estate has to go through probate. By transferring assets before death, placing them in certain forms of living trusts, or making them subject to non-probate transfers, such as joint tenancy or beneficiary designations, a California resident can spare heirs the expense and time of the probate process.
Source: Sacramento County Superior Court, "Decedents' Estates," accessed Jan. 1, 2017