Your One-Stop Guide to Probate in Washington State

Probate Lawyer in Washington State

Many Washington state residents faced with the death of a loved one find the probate process daunting. However, the reason usually stems more from the fact that they don’t know much about the process, not that it is complicated. For the most part, it isn’t.

Probate in Washington state is relatively straightforward, especially with the guidance of a Seattle estate planning attorney at your side. Here is what you need to know.

What is probate?

Probate is the legal process for verifying the validity of a deceased individual’s will if one exists. Additionally, this process involves identifying and assessing the value of the deceased person’s assets, settling any outstanding debts and taxes, and distributing the rest of the estate to the rightful heirs.

After the probate process has concluded, the individuals identified as beneficiaries will obtain their respective inheritances.

How long does probate take?

In Washington state, probate generally concludes within a few months, unless the deceased had considerable wealth or complications arise, such as disputes over the will’s legitimacy.

What if there’s no will?

When there is no will, the court mandates probate to settle the deceased person’s outstanding bills and allocate their assets in accordance with Washington state’s intestacy statutes. The procedures involved are similar, with or without a will.

What are the steps involved in probate?

There are three general steps involved in probate. They are:

1. Verification of the will’s authenticity.

The procedure involves promptly submitting the will to the probate court and concurrently filing a petition to initiate probate proceedings. Including a certified copy of the death certificate is required.

2. Nomination of the executor or personal representative.

The judge will designate an executor, also known as a personal representative, where there is a will or an administrator if there isn’t. This appointed individual assumes responsibility for overseeing the probate process and settling the estate.

If a will is in place, the court will note the decedent’s choice of an executor. Without a will, the court typically appoints the next of kin, often the surviving spouse or an adult child. It’s important to note that this individual is not obligated to serve; they can decline the responsibility, and the court will appoint an alternative representative.

Upon appointment, the executor receives court-authorized authority to act and engage in transactions on behalf of the estate, granted through either letters testamentary when there is a will or letters of administration when there isn’t.

3. Assessment of whether to accept the role if designated as an executor.

Accepting the position of an estate executor is a significant decision that often carries more weight than people initially realize. It is crucial to carefully contemplate the responsibilities associated with the role before committing. Before reaching a decision, take into account the following considerations:

  • Being chosen as an executor is an honor, yet carrying out the responsibilities of executing a will demands considerable time and effort. Before committing to the role, ensure you can manage all of the position’s responsibilities.
  • When deciding to accept the position, consider factors such as the complexity of the estate, your availability to fulfill immediate responsibilities, and the numerous duties that can arise upon the testator’s passing.
  • It’s noteworthy that many executors fulfill their duties without compensation. While an executor can receive payment, it is typically at a rate approved by the court.

After the Executor Is Appointed

The following will occur after the executor is appointed and accepts the role.

Post bond.

The executor may need to furnish a bond before accepting the letters testamentary and assuming responsibilities on behalf of the estate. Bonds serve as an insurance policy to reimburse the estate if the executor makes a significant error — intentional or unintentional — that results in financial harm to the estate and, accordingly, its beneficiaries.

Marshal the decedent’s assets.

The initial responsibility of the executor is to identify and secure all assets belonging to the deceased. This task often requires a significant amount of time and investigative work. Some individuals may possess undisclosed assets, ones even their closest relatives are unaware of, making their discovery challenging.

The executor must search for concealed assets, typically by scrutinizing insurance policies, tax returns, and other relevant documents. In the case of real estate, the executor is under no obligation to reside in the property throughout the probate process for protection purposes. However, they must ensure the ongoing payment of property taxes, insurance, and mortgage installments to prevent foreclosure.

Additionally, the executor may physically take possession of certain assets, such as collectibles or vehicles, and safeguard them in a secure location. They will likewise gather all statements and pertinent documentation related to bank and investment accounts, as well as stocks and bonds.

Determine if there is out-of-state property necessitating ancillary probate.

Ancillary probate is an additional probate that occurs concurrently with the primary probate when a deceased person owned real estate or tangible personal property in another state or states. The laws of the state where the property is situated typically dictate the disposition of that property upon the owner’s death rather than the laws of the state where the decedent resided at the time of their death.

This secondary probate is mandated in addition to the primary probate proceeding conducted in the decedent’s home state. It becomes necessary because the probate court in the decedent’s home state lacks legal jurisdiction over property elsewhere. For instance, if a decedent resided in Washington but possessed real estate in Maine, that property cannot undergo probate in Washington and necessitates ancillary probate in Maine.

One notable drawback of ancillary probate is the increased cost of administering more than one probate estate. The price tag can include multiple court, accounting, and attorneys’ fees. Even with some streamlining through cooperation between state courts, this process can deplete the financial reserves of the estate.

Settling the Decedent’s Debts, Filing Tax Returns, and Distributing the Estate

Is a debt automatically forgiven when someone passes away? No, it is not. In most cases, the responsibility for settling any outstanding debts of the deceased individual falls upon their estate.

It is important to note that the appointed personal representative, executor, or administrator, who has the authority to utilize funds from the estate to address any outstanding debts, is under no obligation to use their own personal funds for debt repayment. Generally, no one else has a legal obligation to assume the repayment of a deceased person’s debt unless specific circumstances arise, such as:

  • A loan has a co-signer.
  • A credit card has a joint account holder.
  • State law mandates the surviving spouse to pay (In Washington state, the surviving spouse may need to utilize community property to settle the deceased spouse’s debts.)

Recognizing and Settling the Debts of the Deceased

Recognizing and informing the decedent’s creditors of their death is essential. While Washington State does not mandate the executor to publish a death notice in a local newspaper, they must diligently identify all creditors.

The executor should compile a comprehensive list of the decedent’s debts. It is crucial to search for bills and statements, which may include:

  • Federal and state income taxes
  • Property taxes
  • HOA Fees
  • Utility bills
  • Cellphone bills
  • Medical bills
  • Credit card bills
  • Lines of credit
  • Car and boat loans
  • Personal loans, including student loans
  • Mortgages
  • Loans against retirement accounts
  • Loans against life insurance policies
  • Storage fees

Legitimate creditor claims are settled by the executor utilizing estate funds to cover all debts and concluding expenses of the deceased, including those arising from their final illness, if applicable.

Tax Return Preparation and Submission

The executor is responsible for submitting the deceased’s last personal income tax returns for the year of their passing. They will assess whether the estate is subject to any estate taxes and, if applicable, file these tax returns. Funds from the estate will settle any outstanding taxes.

Estate Distribution

Upon completion of these tasks, the executor has the authority to distribute the deceased’s remaining assets to the designated beneficiaries mentioned in the will, granted they possess non-intervention powers. In the absence of such powers, court approval is necessary for the asset distribution, usually granted after the executor submits a comprehensive account.

When the will designate bequests to minors, the court appoints a probate guardian ad litem. For adult beneficiaries and other cases, the finalization of bequests involves preparing and submitting deeds and other transfer documents to the relevant state or county authorities.

Find a Seattle probate lawyer.

Losing a loved one is traumatic enough without having to work your way through the Washington state probate process on your own. At Elise Buie Family Law, our team of empathetic estate planning attorneys has probated countless wills, from the simple to the complicated, and we can assist with yours, taking into account your unique circumstances. Call us at our Seattle office today.

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