No matter what happens, no one can bring anything with them when they die. The most we can do to prepare for the inevitable is draft a will or trust, which guarantees that the assets left behind (the decedent’s estate) are transferred to the correct heirs. It seems easy enough, but the process of transferring the estate includes dozens of laws, also known as the California Probate Code, that must be followed.
The Probate Code is one of 29 legal codes set up and governed by the California legislature to keep the general statuary laws of the state from becoming an overwhelming mess. This set of civil laws determines how the transfer of assets will be handled upon someone’s death, including rules and regulations for when there is a will or trust, when there isn’t a will or trust (also known as intestacy succession), or when a decedent isn’t survived by any family members, in which case, the estate will “escheat” to the state. The latter example rarely happens, as the government has done what it can to make sure that a decedent’s estate always has someone to go to.
When someone is appointed as an executor or trustee, they must adhere to every law in the Probate Code, or else be subject to a lawsuit. To keep an executor or trustee honest and liable for mishandling of assets, the Probate Code also governs the fiduciary commitments and defines the liabilities of the executor or trustee.
Because the Probate Code, like many other California Codes, are civil in stature, penalties for breaking one’s fiduciary commitments are almost always monetary, and in some cases, behavioral. This is because the reason for civil law is the redress of wrongs, so a guilty party is only liable for the compensation of this redress.
The Penal Code, in contrast, is criminal in stature, so penalties for breaking criminal laws could include incarceration. Only the state may initiate a case in criminal law, and are almost always decided by a jury, whereas an individual or business may initiate a case in civil court, and these cases are almost always decided by a judge.
Whatever the case may be, the Probate Code, like all other codes in California, is very complicated, and no one wants to end up in court because they didn’t know they were or weren’t supposed to do something. This is why it’s always a good idea to reach out to a knowledgeable probate attorney before trying to navigate any probate proceedings.