Probate, the process of dissolving a California estate, can be time-consuming and emotionally draining. However, Golden State residents have access to a less intensive, more affordable alternative to probate. A small estate affidavit, a special type of legal document, can be used to administer a lower-value estate with minimal court oversight and interference. Small estate affidavit to avoid probate| California Estate Planning Lawyer

Probate in California

Whenever a California resident dies, their estate must be dissolved. In most cases, this happens when the estate’s debts have been repaid, and its remaining assets have been distributed to the deceased person’s named heirs and beneficiaries.

Ordinarily, an estate is dissolved in accordance with the decedent’s final wishes. These wishes may be recorded in a will or fulfilled by a revocable living trust.

However, estate assets—with the exception of trust accounts, beneficiary designations, and some other exempted assets—are still subject to probate. During probate, the court will:

  • Appoint an executor or authorize an executor to oversee the management and dispersal of the decedent’s assets
  • Supervise the dissolution of the estate
  • Mediate disputes between creditors, heirs, and other interested parties

While probate is a legal necessity for many families, a small estate affidavit could help executors resolve estates for considerably less money and with considerably less court interference.

Small Estate Affidavits

California defines a “small estate” as any estate worth $184,500 or less. All property that would not ordinarily be subject to probate is excluded when appraising the estate. Non-probate assets include:

  • Real properties held in joint tenancy
  • Joint bank accounts
  • Some forms of community property
  • Trust assets
  • Debts and mortgages
  • Life insurance policies
  • Transfer-on-death accounts (TODs)
  • Accounts with pay-on-death beneficiary designations (PODs)

If an estate’s probate assets do not exceed $184,500, the executor or an heir can apply for a “small estate affidavit,” which can be used to avoid probate’s most time-consuming elements. 

A small estate affidavit includes information such as:

  • The decedent’s full name, date of death, and county of death
  • Attestations that the value of the deceased person’s estate does not exceed $184,500
  • An inventory and appraisal of the decedent’s real estate or an attestation that the decedent owned no real property
  • The names of the decedent’s heirs

An affidavit can be used to begin informal probate. Once the affidavit has been approved, it can be used in conjunction with a death certificate to begin claiming, transferring, and re-titling the deceased person’s assets.

The Advantages of Small Estate Administration

Small estate administration is a legal process and an alternative to ordinary probate proceedings, and it conveys many advantages over conventional probate.

In general, small estate administration is preferable to probate for the following reasons:

  • Probate is a time-sensitive process. If the executor misses any critical deadlines, they—or the estate—could be held liable for any resulting damages.
  • Probate is a public process. If any dispute arises during probate, it will become a matter of public record. You do not need to establish a “legitimate interest” to obtain probate records.
  • Probate can be expensive. While heirs and beneficiaries are not expected to pay out-of-pocket, the executor may have to use the estate’s resources to hire an attorney, defend against will contests, or otherwise advocate the estate’s interests.

However, even estate representatives and heirs seeking small estate administration could encounter potential obstacles in obtaining and executing a small estate affidavit—especially if the court requires additional documentation or any disputes arise after proceedings have been initiated.

Do You Need Legal Help Regarding Probate Issues In California?

If a loved one died without a will and you need legal assistance regarding the probate process, you should be speak with an experienced probate attorney as soon as possible. Contact us online, or call our office directly at 800-756-5596 to claim your space at one of our free, informative seminars. Your attendance will qualify you for a discount for our probate services. We proudly serve clients throughout California with offices in Torrance, Newport Beach, Orange, Woodland Hills and Pasadena.


Philip J. Kavesh
Nationally recognized attorney helping clients with customized estate planning guidance for over 40 years.