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The Role of the Probate Referee

The word “referee” may conjure images of a guy in a black-and-white striped shirt waving his arms and blowing a whistle. But in California, the word has a very different meaning that shows up in a more solemn context: estate settlement. In fact, California is the only state in the nation that employs professional probate referees as part of its probate process, the court-administered system of managing the distribution of the assets of a deceased person.

As of January 2012, probate is mandatory in California for all estates valued at more than $150,000. As part of the probate process, the person appointed as executor of the estate, also known as the personal representative or administrator of the estate, is required to prepare and file an Inventory and Appraisal form listing the value of all assets belonging to the estate.

The first part of the appraisal focuses on monetary assets, such as bank accounts, proceeds of insurance policies and retirement plans, the dollar amounts of which are fairly easy to determine. The second part of the appraisal, however, focuses on the value of nonmonetary assets, which is more difficult to establish. Such assets include:

  • Businesses
  • Securities
  • Real estate
  • Personal property

This is where the courts rely on the skill of a professional probate referee. Unlike appraisers who serve a specific industry, such as real estate, probate referees are trained to evaluate a wide range of nonmonetary assets. Probate referees are compensated by a statutory commission of one-tenth of 1 percent of the total value of the assets they have appraised, which is paid by the estate. When the appraisals are complete, the probate referee signs a statement attesting that the values listed for the nonmonetary assets were determined honestly, impartially and to the best of the referee’s ability.

Submitting the Inventory and Appraisal is only one of the many duties required of the executor of an estate in California, and many of the duties must be completed within certain timeframes. Work with an experienced estate administration attorney to ensure all your bases are covered.

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