The probate laws governing when wills must be probated are complicated – and even more complicated when a deceased person was not a citizen of the United States. Sometimes, a will must be processed by the probate court in California, and sometimes not.
Did the Non-Citizen Have Assets in California?
When deciding if you need to probate a will, first figure out if the deceased person had any assets in the state of California. The assets must have a “situs” in California to count for probate purposes – in other words, the assets are physically located in California or have some other legally recognized connection to the state.
In California, non-citizens can own real estate or other kinds of property. (Civil Code § 671.) The property could include a vehicle registered in and stored in California, jewelry in a safe deposit box at a California bank, or money in a bank account opened at a U.S. bank. If the deceased person has some kind of property in California, then the California probate court can and may need to oversee administration of that property. (Probate Code §8005(b)(1)(B).) However, the court may not be able to oversee administration of personal property unless the deceased person was domiciled in California.
Was the Non-Citizen Domiciled in California?
Roughly, domicile means that the non-citizen was not planning to leave California any time soon, making the state his or her permanent residence. If a deceased person meets the legal requirements for domicile, then the California probate courts can oversee administration of all or most of the estate. California probate courts have jurisdiction (the legal ability to hear a case) over all people domiciled in California and all property located here.
Sometimes, though, a deceased person’s real and personal property is scattered all over the world. California probate courts cannot oversee real property in other states or countries. They can oversee personal property in California or other U.S. states.
What About Property in Other Countries or States?
People who are not U.S. citizens may own property in other countries or real property in other U.S. states. If so, then you may need to open an “ancillary proceeding” in California. For example, someone might own substantial real estate holdings in another country but several bank accounts in California, and not be a California domiciliary. The family would need to open a probate case in the other country to handle the real estate and then begin a California ancillary probate case to administer the bank accounts.
As should be clear by this point, figuring out where to start a probate case is challenging. You should talk to a lawyer if a deceased relative was not a U.S. citizen.
Need to distribute the estate of a deceased relative? Look to Janet Brewer, Esq. for thorough and thoughtful probate advice. Janet’s more than 20 years of legal experience will give you confidence and peace of mind. To schedule a “Get Acquainted” meeting, visit Janet's website or call her office at (650) 469-8206.