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What is a probate referee and when do you actually need one?

The probate referee's main job is to value non-cash assets at a fair market value. Read on to find out when you need one - and where to get one.

Probate referee california

Although the name might make you think that they are officiating probate, but - the probate referee's main job is to appraise non-cash assets. In this post, we go in-depth on their role, their requirements, and how much they charge the estate. Read on to find out more.

What is a Probate Referee in California?

In California, a probate referee is a court-appointed licensed appraiser who mostly values non-cash assets. Contrary to the name the probate referee does not officiate or oversee the probate process; instead, he or she concentrates on valuing the decedent's estate.

This can be helpful in cases where the estate is large or complex, and where there may be disagreement among the heirs as to the value of certain assets. In addition to valuing non-cash assets, the probate referee may also be called upon to determine the market value of real property, and calculate rents and royalties.

While the role of a probate referee is largely administrative, it is important to remember that he or she is acting on behalf of the court and must therefore be impartial in all decisions.

The appointment of a probate referee is made through California's State Controller's Office. A probate referee gains their certification from passing a state-administered test on probate procedures and appraisals.

To keep up-to-date with appraisal methods, the probate referee then must complete 15 hours of continuing education annually.

To recap:

  • Contrary to the “referee” verbiage - a probate referee is not a probate officiator.

  • They are a state-certified appraiser of mostly non-cash assets.

  • They hold no biases and are impartial to all decisions.

Why are probate referees needed?

A referee's primary function is to review the inventory (the list of estate assets) of estate property, value them, and report this valuation directly to the court. These properties may range from valuable collectibles to stocks and bonds, to real estate, to valuable collectibles, to business-related property, household furniture, or automobiles.

To do this, the referee gathers vital information about the existing debts and assets of the decedent’s estate from the deceased's estate. This information is usually obtained from the trustee, executor, or administrator of such an estate. They are then forwarded to the probate referee via an official form which they are required to complete with their signature.

After successfully completing all non-monetary assets, the probate referee is required to sign a statement that attests to the value of the non-monetary assets listed in the estate. Of course, this evaluation is to be done impartially, honestly, and to the best of the probate referee's ability.

After successfully evaluating the assets, the probate referee signs a document called Inventory and Appraisal Form DE-160.

At this juncture, it’s important to note that all procedures relating to the probate process are supervised by a probate court and headed by a probate judge. The probate Court must also be situated in the descendant's country of residence.

Do All Estates Need A Probate Referee?

Most estates end up requiring a probate referee. Factually speaking, the state of California requires the services of a probate referee where the real estate valuation in the probate process is more than $50,000.

There are some cases where they aren't needed...

In certain circumstances, you may have an estate with only vehicles worth under $50,000 - although a non-cash asset, this estate will be eligible for a small estate affidavit, while also not requiring formal probate while also not needing a probate referee.

There will also be cases where the deceased's estate involves only cash assets, the court will not require the services of a probate referee.

Indeed, a probate referee’s role cannot be undermined in any case. Generally speaking, various counties across California appoint a probate referee without recourse to any legal process. Where this is not the case, the estate administrator must fill out a form requesting the court's appointment of a probate referee.

Further, these legal forms differ across (county) jurisdictions. Hence, an administrator may need to check with the local courts to determine the necessary steps to take when looking to appoint a probate referee.

What are the probate referee fees?

In California, the fee of a private referee is 1/10th of 1% (.001) of the entire assets of the deceased. Although, referees may further charge for other incidental expenses such as mapping, mileage, and even photos.

A probate referee can earn a minimum of $75 and a maximum of $10,000,000. Their payment is deducted from the estate. This explains why it’s not uncommon for most probate referees to withhold the completed appraisal form and inventory until they’ve all been fully paid.

Where to find a probate referee

All probate referees in California are appointed by the Office of the California State Controller. Therefore, locating any referee via the Controller's official website is relatively easy.

There’s also the California Probate Referee Association — an organization responsible for collecting a database of probate referees’ contacts. It’s also a repository of public knowledge on probate proceedings and inheritance in California.

How to Request an Appointment of a Probate Referee

The process that governs the appointment of probate referees also differs across counties in California. For instance, some counties designate a probate referee automatically, in line with item 6 of the Order for Probate. But in the case of other counties, a Separate Form is required to be filed with the court, officially requesting the appointment of such a referee.

Ventura County is a case in point. In this county, completing Form VN084 is necessary to request the court to appoint a probate referee formally. Los Angeles County requires an administrator to fill the local Form PRO-001. San Mateo County, mandates every administrator to fill Form PR-5. Thoroughly staying updated with the local rules about the appointment of a probate referee will avoid unwarranted delays in such appointments by the court.

Once the inventory and appraisal have to be executed before filing any petition, a petitioner, in such case, may elect a currently appointed probate referee within the jurisdiction of the deceased's estate for the referee to carry out the appraisal of the estate.

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