In California, when someone dies intestate – without a valid will – the right to inherit automatically passes to the closest surviving relatives, also known as next-of-kin. If the decedent left a valid will, living trust or life insurance policy, chosen beneficiaries trump rules of intestacy.

Having the legal right to inherit does not formally transfer ownership. Since most estate property transfers require a probate court decree, resulting filing and attorney fees are usually pretty steep. Luckily, probate court proceedings can be totally avoided and replaced when the decedent’s estate does not include real property and its full value does not exceed $150,000.

In such a scenario, anyone claiming the right to inherit can obtain identified assets by providing each person or business holding possession with an “Affidavit to Transfer Small Estate.”  The affidavit formally declares that no probate court proceedings are pending and that those signing have the legal right to inherit each item listed. A certified copy of the death certificate must be attached to the notarized affidavit.

California law excludes the following properties from consideration in a small estate:

  • Property held in joint tenancy that automatically transfers to the surviving owner.
  • Property held in a living trust with a named beneficiary.
  • Life insurance or other property with named beneficiaries (e.g., stocks, bonds, IRAs, annuities).
  • Pay-on-death bank accounts.
  • Vehicles registered with the California Department of Motor Vehicles.
  • Manufactured homes, mobile homes or truck campers.
  • Any amounts owed to the decedent from the U.S. armed forces.
  • Up to $5,000 of employment income.

The person or business holding the decedent’s assets must respect the affidavit presented without formally inquiring into its validity or truth. Because specific legal protections target financial fraud and abuse, anyone who dishonestly secures these assets will be held liable to pay the successors three times their value.

To download H.E.L.P.’s Affidavit to Transfer Small Estate, click here.