Frequently Asked Public Administrator Questions

Question 1: What is the Public Administrator?

The Public Administrator serves as a fiduciary to distribute estate assets of county residents who have passed away and no personal representative is appointed administrator. The Public Administrator only acts as a last resort when there is no one else with higher authority to act.

Question 2: Who may act as personal representative?

In cases with no named executor to carry out the provisions of a will, a person in the following relation to the decedent is entitled to appointment as administrator in the following order of priority:

  1. Surviving spouse
  2. Children
  3. Grandchildren
  4. Other issue
  5. Parents
  6. Brothers and sisters
  7. Issue of brothers and sisters
  8. Grandparents
  9. Issue of grandparents
  10. Children of a predeceased spouse
  11. Other issue of a predeceased spouse
  12. Other next of of kin
  13. Parents of a predeceased spouse
  14. Issue of parents of a predeceased spouse
  15. Conservator or guardian
  16. Public Administrator
  17. Creditors
  18. Any other person

An individual has no power to administer an estate until appointed by the court and issued a Letter of Administration.

Question 3: What is an estate?

An estate is any asset owned by an individual that has value. It may consist of cash or other personal property. An estate may or may not contain real property. Whatever the value of a decedent's estate, it must be properly distributed pursuant to the provisions of the California Probate Code.

Question 4: What are the responsibilities of the Public Administrator?

A. Location of Beneficiaries and Heirs

When it appears that no one with higher authority is handling the decedent's estate, the Public Administrator has a duty to make a diligent search for a will and the names and addresses of heirs. If a will is found, the executor is notified.

If no will is found, then the Public Administrator will attempt to contact heirs to determine if they are willing or able to handle the estate. If there are no heirs or the heirs are unable to act, the Public Administrator may handle the disposition of the estate.

B. Possession of Assets

If no personal representative has been appointed, the Public Administrator has the responsibility to take prompt possession or control of a decedent’s property that is subject to loss, injury, waste, or misappropriation, or that the court orders into the possession or control of the Public Administrator. All assets of a decedent's estate are brought under the control of the Public Administrator when a determination is made that the Public Administrator will handle the estate.

C. Payment of Debts

The Public Administrator tries to ascertain the debts of each estate and notifies all known creditors. Creditor's Claims are sent and a minimum of four months is allowed for creditors to return their claim before the estate can be closed.

D. Sale of Personal and Real Property

The Santa Barbara County Public Administrator periodically liquidates property from various estates in order to pay the debts and make proper distribution. The personal property that is collected is usually auctioned. The auctions are open to the public for the purchase of estate items.

For more information about auctions contact the Public Administrator's office.

E. Distribution of Assets

The Public Administrator attempts to distribute an estate’s assets to those entitled to inherit. When there is no will, the proper order of those persons entitled to inherit is listed in the California Probate Code. However, determining who is entitled to inherit what and locating those individuals can be very challenging and time consuming.

In some cases those entitled to inherit have passed away. In other cases there may be no current address for heirs of a will among the decedent's possessions. These problems can drastically slow down the time of distribution. The provisions of some wills can be difficult to read or carry out.

Question 5: What catetgories of estates are handled by the Public Administrator?

A. Indigent Estates

These are estates without enough funds for disposition of the decedent’s remains and no heirs to arrange or pay for the disposition. When the assets of an estate are not sufficient to pay for disposition, the law requires the relatives to take personal and financial responsibility. If there are no relatives or other persons to act, the county assumes that responsibility.

B. Summary Estates

  1. Estates not exceeding $50,000.00 in value. The Public Administrator may act without court authorization to marshal and distribute the assets of these estates pursuant to the California Probate Code.
  2. Estates valued at $50,000.01 to $150,000.00. The Public Administrator may act after an ex parte application seeking authority to summarily dispose of a small estate is approved by the court.

C. Probated Estates

These are estates with assets worth more than $150,000.01. The Public Administrator handles an estate of this size under the jurisdiction of the Superior Court. The proceeding commences from the first filing of a petition and the appointment of the Public Administrator. Other procedures subject to court approval include proving a will, sale of real property, paying taxes and distribution of assets. An accounting is submitted to court showing what was done, before the Public Administrator is discharged.