Skip Navigation Links

Decedents' Estates

How to Transfer Property after Death



What is a decedent's estate?

"Decedent's estate" is a formal way of referring to property left when a person dies. The "decedent" is the person who has died, and their "estate" is the property they owned at the time of death. In California, a decedent's estate can be distributed in one of three ways: as a "small estate" under $150,000; in probate court as an independent probate proceeding (when the decedent left a will naming an executor); or in probate court as a court-supervised estate (when the decedent did not leave a will or name an executor).

What is the procedure if there is a will?

If the decedent left a will, it usually names a person to be the personal representative of the estate, called an "executor." Unless the will expressly prohibits the procedures authorized by the California Independent Administration of Estates Act (a rare occurrence), the executor is responsible for conducting an inventory and accounting; distribution of the estate's assets; and paying the estate's debts and taxes. This is known as an "independent probate proceeding" because the executor has full authority over the estate and can make decisions without court supervision.

What if the decedent left no will or the will did not name an executor?

If there is no will, the probate court will appoint an administrator. If there is a will but it does not name an executor, the court will appoint an "administrator with will annexed." Like the executor, the administrator is responsible for completing all the requirements to distribute the assets of the estate, with one important distinction: the administrator has only limited authority in carrying out the administration of the decedent's estate and requires court approval before undertaking certain actions. This type of proceeding is known as a "court-supervised estate."

You may also wish to consult these related Legal Resource and Step-by-Step Guides:

Completing and Recording Deeds

Conservatorship Elder Law

Living Wills, Durable Powers of Attorney, and Advance Health Care Directives

Power of Attorney

Small Estate Affidavits

Wills, Trusts, and Estate Planning


These books are highly regarded "plain English" explanations of the law, written by attorneys or other legal experts. They include basic legal discussion and procedures, forms with instructions, and models of other documents that may be required. Many of the books have CDs that supplement the text and provide interactive forms. You can find all of these titles, and more, in the Law Library's Self Help Collection.

How to Probate an Estate in California KFC 205 .N57
Electronic Access: From any computer (library or home) via the Legal Information Reference Center. Instructions are available on our website at  

Probate and Settle an Estate in California KFC 205 .G63


California legal encyclopedias and law summaries provide a summary of California law on specific topics, including decedents' estates. These materials include references to applicable statutes and cases. Attorneys and people representing themselves may find these resources useful.

California Jurisprudence (Cal. Jur.) 3d KFC 80 .C35 (Ready Reference)
Decedents' Estate topics include "Ancillary Proceedings," "Jurisdiction," "Admission of Will to Probate," and "Property Subject to Administration."
Electronic Access: On the Law Library's computers, using WestlawNext.

Witkin's Summary of California Law, 10th Edition KFC 80 .W5 (Ready Reference)
The "Wills and Probate" chapter includes "Intestate Succession," "Probate Administration," and "Independent Administration of Estates Act."
Electronic Access: On the Law Library's computers, using WestlawNext.


Although practice guides are written for attorneys, people representing themselves may also find these resources useful. These materials provide more detailed information than the self-help books.

Administering a Single-Person Trust After Settlor's Death. Here's How and When to Do it (Action Guide) KFC 188 .G38 
Electronic Access: On the Law Library's computers, using OnLaw.

California Civil Practice: Probate and Trust Proceedings KFC 205 .A6 B36
[Includes FORMS on an accompanying CD]
Electronic Access: On the Law Library's computers, using WestlawNext.

California Decedent Estate Practice KFC 210 .C36 
[Includes FORMS in the book and on an accompanying CD]
Electronic Access:  On the Law Library's computers, using OnLAW.

California Practice Guide: Probate KFC 205 .A65 R6
Electronic Access: On the Law Library's computers, using WestlawNext.

California Probate Paralegal KFC 205 .N69

California Probate Practice  KFC 205 .A6 C2

California Probate Workflow Manual  KFC 205 .C34
Electronic Access: On the Law Library's computers, using OnLAW.

California Trust and Probate Litigation  KFC 205 .C345
Electronic Access: On the Law Library's computers, using OnLAW.

Handling a Probate: Here's How and When to Do It KFC 205 .E44
Electronic Access:  On the Law Library's computers, using OnLAW.

Handling Postmortem Trust Administration: a Checklist. Here's How and When to Do it (Action Guide) KFC 194 .P67 H26 
Electronic Access: On the Law Library's computers, using OnLaw.


Formbooks contain samples and examples of documents and forms used in probate proceedings. Some formbooks include copies of completed documents and forms to provide guidance for completing these papers.

California Code Forms and Commentary: Probate KFC 30.W482 P76
Electronic Access: On the Law Library's computers, using WestlawNext.

California Probate Procedure: with Judicial Council Forms KFC 205 .M3

Law Office Procedures Manual KFC 77 .L44
See: Chapter J, "Probate."

Probate Procedures Manual  KFC 205 .A65 P76 (Reference)

Sacramento County Public Law Library has links to some of the forms useful in dealing with decedents' estates. The Judicial Council creates some forms for state-wide use. The Sacramento County Superior Court creates forms for local use. For other situations, you may need to create your own forms. Our Research & Step-by-Step Guides have instructions and samples for many commonly-used forms:

California Judicial Council forms are available:

Sacramento County Local Forms are available:


(A) Statutes

The California Probate Code governs probate proceedings in California. The Probate Code is available at the library in annotated form (includes summaries of cases interpreting probate laws) and un-annotated form (includes only the laws). An un-annotated version of the Probate Code is also freely available on the Internet from the California State Legislature's website at codes.xhtml

  • Deering's California Probate Code Annotated KFC 30.5 .D4 P76 (Compact)
  • West's Annotated California Probate Code KFC 30 .W48 P76      
    Electronic Access: On the Law Library's computers, using WestlawNext.
  • California Probate Code (Desktop ed.) KFC 30.5 .W4 P76 (Reference)
  • California Probate Code: Annotated to CEB Publications KFC 205.A16 P77

(B) Court Rules

Probate proceedings in California are governed by the California Rules of Court. Most California counties also have local probate court rules.

  • California Local Probate Rules  KFC 205 .A4       
    Electronic Access: On the Law Library's computers, using OnLAW.
  • California Rules of Court: State KFC 992 .A31(Reference)

California State Court Rules are available on the Internet at the California State Courts website at: Title Seven contains the Probate Rules (Rules 7.1 - 7.1101).

Sacramento County Probate Court Rules are available on the internet at


The Probate Court is responsible for overseeing the distribution of the assets of persons who have died.

Decedents' Estates
Available on the Sacramento County Superior Court website, this publication offers an overview of local probate procedures.

Wills, Estates and Probate
Available on the California Courts' website, provides general information to determine whether you need to file a petition to transfer property when someone dies. Provides links to forms to start a case in probate court when necessary.

The California Department of Motor Vehicles provides forms to Transfer a Vehicle without Probate at, and an Affidavit for Transfer without Probate at

Petitions for Probate hearings in Sacramento must be filed at the William R. Ridgeway Family Relations Courthouse, Probate Department, which is located on the Second Floor, Dept. 214 – Probate.

How to Obtain Probate Records in the Sacramento Superior Court

How to Probate a Decedent's Estate
A step-by-step guide offered on the Santa Clara County Superior Court website.


Sacramento County Public Law Library Civil Self-Help Center 
609 9th Street, Sacramento 95814 (916) 847-6012  
Services provided: The Civil Self-Help Center (CSHC) provides general information and basic assistance to self-represented litigants on a variety of civil legal issues. The CSHC cannot assist with complicated probate or estate Issues, such as will contests, conservatorships, or guardianships, but can assist with simple procedures such as Petitions to Determine Succession to Real Property (Estates of $150,000 or Less) and Spousal or Domestic Partner Property Petitions.

Senior Legal Hotline  
444 North 3rd Street, #312, Sacramento 
Toll Free: (800) 222-1753, Sacramento County: (916) 551-2140, Fax: (916) 551-2197 Click on "Our Services." 
Services provided: Free legal assistance for Sacramento County residents age 60 and over on almost any civil issue, including estate planning and probate.

Voluntary Legal Services Program of Northern California (VLSP)
Main Office: 501 12th Street, Sacramento, Client Intake Line (916) 551-2102
Services provided: Legal aid program that provides free assistance with civil legal matters to low income clients living in the Sacramento region. VLSP provides limited services to clients who need help resolving issues involving the estate of a deceased person. They are more likely to help a client with a small estate that does not require a full probate proceeding. Eligible clients should call their intake line.


Updated 10/13 jc