During the probate of an estate, certain family members of the deceased person may request an allowance to be paid from the estate for their maintenance. California Probate Code Section 6540 states that:
(a) The following are entitled to such reasonable family allowance out of the estate as is necessary for their maintenance according to their circumstances during administration of the estate:
(1) The surviving spouse of the decedent.
(2) Minor children of the decedent.
(3) Adult children of the decedent who are physically or mentally incapacitated from earning a living and were actually dependent in whole or in part upon the decedent for support.
(b) The following may be given such reasonable family allowance out of the estate as the court in its discretion determines is necessary for their maintenance according to their circumstances during administration of the estate:
(1) Other adult children of the decedent who were actually dependent in whole or in part upon the decedent for support.
(2) A parent of the decedent who was actually dependent in whole or in part upon the decedent for support.
(c) If a person otherwise eligible for family allowance has a reasonable maintenance from other sources and there are one or more other persons entitled to a family allowance, the family allowance shall be granted only to those who do not have a reasonable maintenance from other sources.
In other words, this statute covers people who primarily relied on the deceased person for support. It also limits the ability of those who already have a reasonable amount of resources from requesting an allowance.
Family allowances are problematic because of the significant amount of time it takes to go through the probate process in California. Often, probate administration lasts a year or more. Thus, for example, if a decedent named non-family members as beneficiaries of his or her Will, it's possible that the family allowance would eat away at the named beneficiaries' inheritance.
Some counties limit the amount of time that a family allowance will last, but California Probate Code Section 6543 states that:
(a) A family allowance shall terminate no later than the entry of the order for final distribution of the estate or, if the estate is insolvent, no later than one year after the granting of letters.
(b) Subject to subdivision (a), a family allowance shall continue until modified or terminated by the court or until such time as the court may provide in its order.
In other words, the family allowance may continue until (1) the judge issues the final order distributing the assets of your estate, or (2) if the liabilities of the estate exceed its assets, no later than one year after "Letters" (the document officially appointing your Executor or Administrator) is granted.
It's therefore important to talk with an estate planning lawyer to determine whether a family allowance poses a significant risk in your particular case.