Probate is a division of the County Superior Court. The court system in California begins with county level “trial courts.” These are the courts most familiar to people. This is where trials occur, jury service is performed, divorces are granted, criminals are brought to justice, and people sue each other.
County courts are divided into divisions, such as the “civil” division and the “criminal” division. Most counties further subdivide their civil division. Examples include family law, juvenile, and probate. (Many people misconstrue “family law” to include Wills and Trusts, but it really refers to divorce, child custody
and support, and sometimes adoptions.) The Probate Division ordinarily handles cases associated with death, such as passage of property under the decedent’s Last Will and Testament or the administration of Trusts, but it also covers Guardianship of minors and Conservatorship of adults. In some counties, the probate department also conducts adoptions. Court “divisions” are only an organizational feature of the court system. Almost all of the courts in each division are “general jurisdiction,” meaning that any type of case “could” be heard in those courts — they just “aren’t” as a matter of convenience. Similarly, all of the judges have the same powers and authority, regardless in which division they sit.
When someone dies, a probate action might be necessary. In that event, the Probate Court will determine if the Last Will and Testament is valid, appoint an Executor to administer the estate, appoint guardians for children (if necessary), ensure that the rights of the heirs and creditors are protected, oversee final distribution of the property, and take other actions as needed. But a probate action is not needed in all instances when someone dies. In fact, there are many matters that will not require any court involvement at all. This may occur, for example, when a person dies without many valuable assets or when the assets are held in a Trust.
Many county courts have a website that explains their divisions in more detail. For example, the author of this blog practices in Riverside County. The Riverside County Superior Court website has very helpful information about its various Divisions, including information specific to its Probate Department.