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How Long Does It Take to Probate a Will in California?

How long does the probate process take in California? The short answer is that it generally takes anywhere from nine to 24 months. In the case of complex or contentious estates, however, the process can take much longer. A skilled probate attorney can greatly expedite the process for you.

Overview of the Probate Process

How Long Does It Take to Probate a Will in California?

Probate is the process by which a court and its appointed executor administers and distributes a person’s property after they die. It is a formal sequential probate process that must be strictly followed. An executor must perform certain tasks, and the Court oversees the process. Following is a very general description of the probate process.

Step One: Initiating Probate

The petitioner (typically, the proposed estate executor or administrator) prepares a Petition for Probate, usually with the help of a probate lawyer. The petition should include the decedent’s death certificate and a last will and testament if there is one.

Step Two: Notice

The petitioner mails notice to each party named in the decedent’s will (if there is one) and to each of the decedent’s legal heirs. The notice informs them of the decedent’s death and the upcoming probate proceedings. The decedent’s creditors must be notified, and a notice to creditors must be published in a newspaper of general circulation in the decedent’s county of residence.

Step Three: The First Probate Hearing

At the first probate hearing, the Court will determine the validity of the will, and it will appoint the executor. The executor is normally the person named in the will or if there is no will, a close family member of the decedent.

Step Four: Administration of Estate Assets

The executor should inventory estate assets, collect funds from estate debtors, and pay all legitimate debts. Some, if not all, estate assets are typically liquidated as necessary to distribute assets to creditors and beneficiaries. The executor should also file all applicable tax returns on behalf of the estate and the decedent.

Step Five: Approval of Distribution Plan

The executor must file an accounting with the Court, detailing how estate assets were administered in Step Four. The Court will then approve a plan to distribute remaining estate assets to estate beneficiaries.

Step Six: Distribution of Estate Assets

The executor will then distribute the estate’s remaining assets to the appropriate beneficiaries according to the plan approved by the Court.

In actual practice, the probate process is not nearly as streamlined as it may appear above. Someone may contest the will, for example, or there could be a dispute with a creditor, which could add years to the probate process.

How Long Does the Probate Process Take?

How Long Does the Probate Process Take?

See below for a step-by-step breakdown of the California probate administration timeline.

Initiating Probate One to three months. A probate lawyer should prepare the Petition for Probate.
Notice Sometimes those entitled to notice are known immediately. But his process could take longer if some of the beneficiaries or creditors are difficult to identify or locate. A dispute over the exact amount owed will not normally delay this step.
The First Probate Hearing Two or three months, depending on the Court’s docket. At the hearing, the Court should issue Letters Testamentary to the executor to establish the executor’s authority to act on behalf of the estate.
Administration of Estate Assets Several months on average. In complex cases, however, this process could take years.
Approval of Distribution Plan A month or two, depending on the Court’s docket.
Distribution of Estate Assets Again, several months. The length of time required to distribute estate assets varies greatly from estate to estate, however.


In many cases, it is possible to save time by pursuing multiple steps simultaneously.

Probate Fees

Ordinary California probate fees include court costs, attorney’s fees, and executor’s fees. These are usually about 3 percent of the total value of the estate. A court might add to these fees under extraordinary circumstances.

Does a Will Always Go Through Probate?

Does a Will Always Go Through Probate

Not always. A last will and testament will not be probated if, for example:

  • The will is declared invalid, or it cannot be located. In this case, probate will proceed without the will, and assets will be distributed to the decedent’s closest relatives in a process known as intestate succession.
  • A last will and testament will not be subject to the probate process if the decedent owned no property that is subject to probate. This might happen, for example, if the decedent placed all of their assets into a living trust.

A small estate (valued at less than $166,250) will be subject to expedited probate procedures under California probate law.

Assets That Don’t Go Through Probate

Some examples of assets that are not subject to probate (and are therefore distributed under their own rules) include:

  • Assets held in trust;
  • Proceeds of a life insurance policy;
  • Jointly owned property with the rights of survivorship;
  • Certain types of retirement accounts;
  • Payable on Death (POD) or Transfer on Death (TOD) accounts.

Keep in mind that gifts to a surviving spouse usually do not go through probate.

How Long After Probate Is a Will Settled?

Generally, if there are no unusual circumstances, an executor can wrap up probate procedures within 12 months.

Don’t Let the Glue of Circumstance Harden Around Your Feet – Take Action Now

Life is full of unexpected events, including the possibility of your own untimely death or incapacity. If you own significant assets, the time to start planning the disposition of your estate after you die is now.

The experienced estate planning attorneys at Barr & Douds have been helping people just like you for over two decades now. Please feel free to contact us online, by telephone at (925) 660-7544, or by appointment at our office in Danville. We meet regularly with clients from Walnut Creek, San Francisco, Pleasant Hill, Livermore, Pleasanton, Richmond, Berkeley, and Oakland.

Loren Barr
by Loren Barr
Updated: July 29, 2021

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