In California, it is possible to complete all the various steps of probate on your own without a lawyer’s professional guidance and help.

However, you must know that nothing in the California legal system is “simple.” No matter how confident you feel, questions will arise that you may not be qualified to answer. Also, if you get anything wrong with the filing or execution of probate, you could suffer delays, excessive costs for correction, and enormous stress from your family.

You may even feel that the Will was drafted in a “straightforward” manner, and there may not be a need for probate. This, however, is a common and dangerous myth that a well-drafted Will is all the legal documentation you need to claim an inheritance.

In California, having a “Last Will & Testament” does not allow you to bypass the California probate process. Legally, a “Will” is a letter written to the probate judge. In this “letter,” your loved one expresses their desires for what should occur upon their death.

However, during the probate proceedings, the Will is presented to the judge, and the judge decides what will happen next. Also, each estate differs in size, makeup, debts, and complexity. Going through the probate process yourself usually is a challenging and complex process, especially during the emotional strain of losing your loved one.

Even if heirs and beneficiaries are accommodating (which many times they are not), you still must resolve or pay existing debts and taxes and ensure all legal deadlines for the estate are met. Specific deadlines must be met to file all legal documents about the estate (and the probate process), or you will commonly face legal complications and be held personally liable!

Many of us have faced legal challenges in our lives, and we know that dealing with the court system in any state is commonly discouraging, stressful, complex, and fraught with danger when done alone. So, even if you can legally navigate the California probate process alone, doing so could (and usually does) complicate the matter further.

What Are Some Reasons I Need a Probate Lawyer in California?

Even if you believe that your loved one’s estate is simple, many issues can arise from debtors, discovered liens, and family that complicate the probate process.

Some of the more direct reasons that you should, at least, consult with a local Fresno estate planning lawyer are:

  • They will help to ensure that probate is completed quickly and efficiently and that the estate is correctly distributed according to your loved one’s wishes or directives.
  • Your lawyer will provide valuable and critical legal advice that will prevent issues and always help to resolve any problems that may arise amiably.
  • They will oversee any needed assessment of your loved one’s estate’s value, address and resolve any existing debts to creditors, and help the appointed executor avoid dire personal liability issues throughout the entire probate process.

It’s also wise to remember that losing a loved one is stressful for you and your entire family. There’s much to deal with, and the complexity of probate is something you don’t have to do yourself. The wise move is to consult with our empathetic and knowledgeable Fresno estate planning lawyer. They can, at the least, advise you as to why or why not you should attempt to probate on your own.

What Are Examples of the “High-Levels” of Probate, and Why Should I Be Concerned?

Even in a small or straightforward estate, things can arise that throw a “monkey wrench” into the works, and suddenly you have a severe probate issue.

These issues, of course, don’t occur in every Probate proceeding, but even in small estates that may just contain property, they do occur.

So, at the highest level, some goals of the Probate may include:

  • Determine if a Will exists and if it is contested.
  • Determining exactly who are your loved ones’ heirs or beneficiaries.
  • Choosing the “right” person in charge of closing out your loved ones’ estate.
  • Inventorying all your loved ones’ property and calculating its worth.
  • Taking care of your loved ones’ financial issues, including taxes owed.
  • Legally transferring your loved ones’ property to their proper heirs or beneficiaries.

These severe and life-changing issues must be dealt with properly and correctly. Your Fresno estate planning and probate lawyer’s guidance in answering and following through on any of these matters will be invaluable.

What May Happen If I Don’t Even Apply for Probate in California?

When your loved one created a will, they will usually have appointed an administrator of their estate. The administrator ensures your loved ones’ final wishes are conducted.

These matters include paying off debts and distributing assets and property to their named beneficiaries.

If you are in possession of your loved ones’ will after they die, you are legally obligated to file the Will with the superior court in the county where they lived within 30 days.

If you don’t do this on time, numerous matters regarding your loved one’s estate can be affected.

For example:

  • You won’t be able to transfer any property or assets –  Failure to file the will within this time is not considered a crime but could result in profound consequences for the estate and you. Probating a will is the only way to legally validate it and transfer the legal title of the property to the named beneficiaries.
  • You cannot resolve the estate’s debts – Another vital responsibility as an administrator is to notify all creditors with claims against the estate that your loved one has died.
  • You may be removed from your role as the administrator – The administrator holds a  fiduciary duty to put the interests of their loved one’s estate and its beneficiaries first. You may be removed if you don’t do what’s necessary to move the process along.
  • You could be criminally prosecuted – Lastly,  if you don’t file the Will and open probate because you intentionally conceal the existence of the Will for your own benefit, you can become criminally liable.

I Need to Open Probate Due to My Loved Ones’ Death; How Should I Proceed?

So, it’s true that you can go through Probate in California without the assistance of a lawyer; but is this the wise choice for you or your loved ones’ estate?

After the death of a close family member, you, and your family, are already filled with emotion. Then if you are named in the will as administrator, you may be confused about your responsibilities, feel completely overwhelmed, and simply ignoring the Will is not a wise option. 

At the least, consulting with a qualified Fresno estate planning lawyer about the details of loved ones’ estate will answer any questions you may have. These final wishes are critical to your loved one; you must give them the professional attention they deserve.