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California estate timetable for heirs and beneficiaries

Grief and duty mix following a family member's death. Relatives nearest to the deceased are often assigned the roles of executors and trustees with time-sensitive duties to perform. Fiduciary responsibility begins the moment someone dies and continues until estate assets are distributed, as directed by the decedent or a court.

Fiduciaries for an estate have an obligation to work in the best interests of heirs and beneficiaries, which includes keeping them informed. In California, the will of a decedent must be filed with the county clerk's office in the county where the maker of the will or testator died. The filing must take place within 30 days of the testator's death or knowledge of the death.

When an estate plan contains a trust, the trustee - who may or may not be the executor - must let heirs know of the document's existence. California laws require heirs to be notified about trusts within 60 days of a death.

To be clear, the words "heir" and "beneficiary" sometimes are used interchangeably, but there is a difference. Heirs are members of a family entitled to an inheritance. Spouses, children, siblings and parents top the list. Uncles, aunts and cousins are also considered heirs, when applicable. Anyone who inherits without holding one of these titles, an unrelated person or distant relative, is known as a beneficiary.

Fiduciaries come in all levels of competency from unprepared to uncertain to professional. Through ignorance or willfulness, some fiduciaries breach duties toward people they have promised to benefit. The loss of trust between an executor or trustee and heirs easily can lead to a court battle like a will contest. The costs for resolving problems in court may shrink the estate.

Heirs and beneficiaries are often advised to retain an estate planning attorney to understand their rights of inheritance. Counsel is also appropriate when concerns arise about a fiduciary's actions.

Source:, "When is notice required to be given of the existence of a will or trust?" Claudia Buck, Sep. 01, 2013

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