Trust, Estate, and Probate Services: The Basics

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One of the greatest gifts you can give your family is to build an estate plan while you are alive and well. Estate planning allows you to formally communicate your wishes so they will not be up for interpretation by your surviving relatives, who may strongly disagree with your intentions when you are no longer there to settle any disagreement. 

Estate planning is about more than clarifying what you want to leave your loved ones as an inheritance. It can save your beneficiaries money on taxes and other unnecessary expenses, including legal fees, to resolve disputes that should never have happened. It can also help you clarify your end-of-life wishes if you cannot express them yourself. 

An estate plan is the best way to avoid unnecessary stress; it can provide you peace of mind during your lifetime, and do the same for your loved ones after you pass away. A Seattle estate planning lawyer can help you create your estate plan. In the meantime, here are some basics about various aspects of estate plans.

What happens during probate?

The word “probate” comes up frequently in almost every client’s first few meetings with an estate planning lawyer. Probate is the legal process where your will speaks on your behalf, and once probate is complete, the beneficiaries listed in your will receive their inheritance. Unless the deceased person was very wealthy or unless there are complications, such as a dispute over the validity of the decedent’s will, then probate usually takes only a few months.

The following things must happen during probate before an estate can settle:

  • Someone must petition the court to open the estate for probate and appoint a personal representative. The petitioner should present the decedent’s will if there is one. If the decedent left a will, the court will appoint the person designated as personal representative in the will, provided that he or she is still living. If there is no will, the court will usually assign the role of personal representative to the person who petitioned the court to open the estate for probate.
  • The personal representative must notify all “interested persons” that the estate is open for probate. Interest persons are beneficiaries listed in the will, as well as any other close family members who are not listed in the will.
  • The personal representative must also notify all known creditors. He or she should examine the decedent’s financial records and mail to identify any parties to whom the decedent was making payments on an outstanding debt.
  • The personal representative must publish notices in the local newspaper announcing that the estate is open for probate. This way, any creditors or prospective heirs who were not individually notified may contact the probate court with their claims.
  • If any creditors file claims by the deadline, the personal representative must settle these claims to whatever extent the estate’s funds allow. In some cases, the personal representative must sell assets that belong to the estate to satisfy creditor claims. In the worst-case scenario, the entire estate goes to debt repayment, and there is nothing for the heirs to inherit.
  • If the will requires the personal representative to sell assets in order to divide the proceeds among multiple heirs, the personal representative must do this. Before agreeing to a buyer’s offer, the personal representative must obtain the heirs’ consent about the sale price.
  • The personal representative must file a final tax return on behalf of the decedent.

If the value of the estate is modest, it may qualify for simplified probate proceedings.

How and Why to Write a Will

Every adult should write a will. You still need one, even if you are young and healthy and have no assets. It is especially important to write a will if you have minor children; your will is the place to appoint a guardian for them in the event that you and your children’s other parent both die while the children are still minors.

Your will should list the person you choose as the personal representative of your estate. You should also list a successor personal representative in case the personal representative you originally listed predeceases you. If you have minor children and listed a guardian for them, you should list a successor guardian as well.

A will is only legally valid if it bears the signatures of witnesses who are not beneficiaries of the will. You should have a Seattle estate planning lawyer draft or review your will so that it meets all of Washington state’s legal requirements.

Should you establish a trust?

Estate planning lawyers often advise clients to set up trusts to prevent family conflict or make probate faster and simpler. A trust is a legal entity to which you transfer some or all of your property; this way, the property legally belongs to the trust instead of to you. When establishing a trust, you write a trust document that appoints a trustee and, ideally, a successor trustee to dispense money from the trust and make financial decisions on its behalf. The trust’s beneficiaries can be family members, charities, or anyone you choose.

Trusts are important from an estate planning perspective because the property that belongs to the trust does not become part of your estate when it goes through probate. You can even set up a revocable trust that goes into effect while you are alive and has the authority to disperse funds to pay for your long-term care. In this type of trust, you are a beneficiary.

When to Update Your Estate Plan

If you have an estate plan, you are on the right track but do not assume your work is done. It is a mistake to leave your estate plan the way it is, even after a life change that makes the provisions of your current estate plan moot or undesirable. 

For example, imagine that Harriet wrote her will when her daughter was born, and she appointed her mother as personal representative of her estate and as guardian of her daughter. Now that her daughter is grown up and her mother has died, Harriet should write a new will with a new personal representative. 

Divorce is another important reason to update your will. Procrastinating can lead to showdowns between step-siblings and former in-laws during probate.

Contact Elise Buie Family Law about estate planning matters.

An estate planning attorney can help with wills, trusts, and probate cases. At Elise Buie Family Law, our Seattle team of estate planning lawyers understands that creating an estate plan can be daunting and will take the time to familiarize you with the process so that you are comfortable and informed.  Contact us today to set up a consultation.

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