The probate court process is a special legal system that accounts for a deceased person’s assets and property. It then transfers those assets to beneficiaries and heirs in accordance with both the law and the decedent’s last wishes.
The rules and procedures that govern the probate process differ from state to state, with probate being mandatory in many states. In California, however, the courts have approved streamlined processes for transferring certain assets outside of the probate process. This helps beneficiaries access much-needed funds in a timely fashion, as the probate process can take up to a year in California.
Assets that qualify for this expedited transfer are those with clear beneficiaries that are already established. Examples of assets that qualify for quick non-probate transfer include:
If you have a bank account jointly with another person, such as a spouse or child, any money in that account can be transferred to the other party (or parties) named on the account upon your death without the assets being subject to the probate court process.
Even in the absence of a will, a bank account held in two names, or with a clearly designated beneficiary on the account, can be transferred to that beneficiary without going through the probate process. Even when there is a will, having your name listed on a bank account will essentially supersede the will in most instances, making the last will and testament irrelevant where that particular account or asset is concerned.
Having the ability to name beneficiaries directly on financial instruments is a powerful tool that you can use as an element of your overall estate plan when you are opening bank accounts, shopping for insurance policies, or purchasing valuable property. One of the most robust and legally binding ways to ensure that all your assets are available to your beneficiaries without waiting out the probate process is to work with a qualified estate planning attorney to establish a living trust that all those assets can be attached to.
If all the assets you want to protect on behalf of a beneficiary are simple financial assets (e.g., cash), establishing a trust may not be necessary at all. Setting up a joint bank account with your beneficiary and funding it with the assets you wish to bequeath to them can achieve almost the same thing. If you pass away while holding a joint bank account with a spouse or dependent, they will be able to continue accessing those funds upon your death.
This joint bank account model for the transfer of assets is completely seamless because there really is no “transfer” occurring at all—someone is simply accessing funds in an account on which they are already named. Because someone owns these funds in their own name, there is no need for the probate court, or any court, to be involved. This is a much different situation than a true inheritance, where a bank account held by a single decedent will need to be liquidated and transferred to the properly identified heir or beneficiary through the probate process.
A joint bank account is somewhat different than a bank account with a beneficiary named, but the latter situation will also allow you to avoid probate court upon the death of the primary account holder. If you are named as the beneficiary on a bank account and the account holder passes away, there is no need to go through the probate court to have the funds transferred to you. In this situation, you can simply go to the bank that holds the account in question and provide them with the necessary documentation, which usually consists of your own identification, a certified death certificate, and any paperwork specific to the individual bank’s internal procedures. The bank will then be able to release the funds to you without any involvement by court officials.
A: All assets, including bank accounts, are theoretically subject to the probate process when the account holder passes. This process exists to ensure that assets are distributed fairly, in accordance with the law and the decedent’s final wishes. In California, however, there are special streamlined processes that allow for certain types of assets to be quickly transferred outside of the probate process if they meet the criteria. One such asset is bank accounts with designated beneficiaries.
A: Yes, if you are a named beneficiary on a decedent’s account, the bank holding the account should release the funds to you if you can provide them with proper identification and a certified death certificate. There may also be internal paperwork that needs to be completed depending on the individual bank’s policies. If you are not named anywhere on the account, however, you will need to complete the probate process to have the assets transferred to you.
A: In California, assets with a clearly defined beneficiary can be left out of the probate court process. This includes jointly held property and accounts, life insurance policies, living trusts, and bank accounts with designated beneficiaries. Directly designated beneficiaries will usually supersede anything written in a will, as well as be exempt from the probate process.
A: Yes, but only if you are named on the account, either as a joint account holder or a beneficiary. The bank holding the account will release the funds to you without going through probate court, so long as you can provide proper identification and a certified copy of the primary account holder’s death certificate.
If you are the beneficiary of a bank account and are worried about accessing your funds as quickly as possible, the probate experts at Sweeney Probate Law can help. We have legal experts standing by to serve Californians who have questions or concerns surrounding probate court and estate planning. Contact us today for a review of your case.