Wills, Trusts, and Estates Attorney in Washington State

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 What is Probate?

When someone dies, their estate will typically need to be distributed through a specialized court called “probate” court. Probate may be defined as the legal process by which the property, assets, debts, and general affairs of a person who has died (“decedent”) are settled and distributed amongst the rightful beneficiaries.

The probate process is also used to validate wills, appoint a representative for the estate, and make various other determinations regarding the decedent’s property. Probate is also used to establish a plan for paying off any outstanding taxes and/or debts owed by the decedent’s estate.

Some examples of the goals of the probate process include:

  • Determining the authenticity and legality of an existing will
  • If the decedent died without a will (“intestate,”) determining who the heirs are under the law
  • Identifying and taking inventory of the decedent’s belongings
  • Having certain property appraised, such as land or valuables
  • Overseeing the distribution of the decedent’s property and assets as intended
  • Preventing executor and estate administrator misconduct, such as fraud
  • Evaluating any debts, outstanding claims, or lawsuits relating to the decedent’s estate
  • Paying off the decedent’s remaining debts and taxes
  • Distributing the decedent’s property
  • Resolving disputes among beneficiaries

Does Washington Have Its Own Probate Code?

The Uniform Probate Code, or UPC, is a body of federal laws that governs wills, trusts, and estates. It provides uniform procedures in place of the formalities of a traditional probate court. The UPC intends to make court procedures simpler and less expensive. The Uniform Probate Code covers:

  • Determination of a will
  • Functions of an executor
  • Process of administering an estate

UPC is currently adopted in eighteen states. Washington is not one of them. Washington has its own probate process. The probate process in Washington is often considered one of the nation’s least expensive and most efficient systems. Also, smaller estates may qualify for even more simplified and streamlined proceedings under Washington probate laws.

What Does the Washington Probate Process Look Like?

In Washington, the probate process typically begins when someone close to the decedent (often a family member or the decedent’s lawyer) files a petition with the court to probate their will. If the decedent died intestate (without a will), the person files a “petition for letters of administration.”

From there, whoever was named in the will is officially appointed to act as the decedent’s representative for the process. If the decedent named no person, the court will appoint an “administrator,” basically the same as a personal representative.

The administrator or personal representative will have several duties concerning the will or the intestate estate. Because the process is time-consuming and complex, the personal representative will typically be working with the decedent’s lawyer. The personal representative’s duties may include:

  • Notifying heirs and other people who may be interested in the estate (including those designated to receive property from the estate)
  • Compiling information about all of the heirs and beneficiaries, such as their names, ages, and their relationship to the decedent
  • Identifying and taking inventory of the decedent’s assets
  • Determining the fair market value of those assets (usually through an appraisal)
  • Representing the estate in the event of any will contests or other lawsuits
  • Collecting and managing any debts or interest owed to (and by) the decedent
  • Preparing, settling, and completing any outstanding tax issues
  • Transferring property to those who should receive
  • File a document that declares the probate process to be complete

Thus, the duties and responsibilities of an administrator or personal representative can be significant. Legal challenges can occur at any step of the way in any of the steps listed above.

For instance, a beneficiary might challenge how an administrator identifies or appraises an item of property. Someone may challenge the validity of the entire will or one or more of its provisions. If a person did not receive a gift in the will but thought they should have, they may argue that someone exerted undue influence on the decedent, and the gift went to them instead of the person who was expecting it. The personal representative can have a lot of work to do before the probate process ends.

Does Everything Have to Pass Through Probate in Washington?

Formal probate in Washington is required in cases where a person leaves property in their own name only (such as when their house is only titled in their name). It is also only necessary if the person’s estate is worth more than $100,000.

Certain property does not have to pass through probate in Washington. Oftentimes these are property items that are already associated with some sort of mechanism that deals with transfers of property upon death. These include:

  • Real estate property that is owned as “tenancy by the entirety” or as “joint tenants with rights of survivorship”
  • Property that is held in a revocable trust
  • Bank accounts associated with certain clauses, such as “payable on death” or “transfer on death” clauses
  • Life insurance and retirement policies that have designated beneficiaries
  • Property subject to community property agreements between the deceased person and their surviving spouse
  • “Transfer on death” deeds; this form of property transfers automatically to the recipient.

Also, some estates can qualify for the “Small Estate” probate process in Washington. If the value of the decedent’s entire estate does not exceed $100,000, then personal property in the estate may pass to the beneficiaries by affidavit(s) instead of the probate process.

The following assets may be excluded to calculate whether the estate amounts to $100,000:

  • Bank accounts up to $2,500
  • Credit union accounts for up to $1,000
  • Unpaid wages up to $2,500
  • Social Security death benefits up to $1,000
  • Vehicles: The Washington Department of Licensing will transfer the registration of a car or boat registered in the decedent’s name to any person who properly submits a proper affidavit
  • IRS Tax Refunds
  • US Savings Bonds

Small estate probate is NOT available:

  • For non-Washington state residents who own property in the state
  • For decedents who died with more debts than assets (i.e., died “insolvent”)
  • During the first 40 days after the person’s death
  • For persons who are not the decedent’s successor
  • In cases where a Petition for Appointment of Personal Representative has been granted in any jurisdiction (or is pending).

Do I Need a Wills, Trusts, and Estate Lawyer for Probate in Washington?

As you can see, the probate process in Washington can be complicated, particularly if there is a large estate. There are many options to choose from and many different processes that might be available for each case. Thus, it’s important to have a trust, wills, and estates lawyer to help manage an estate after a person’s death.

If you are a personal representative or an administrator of the estate, it’s even more important to have the guidance of an attorney. As mentioned, legal disputes can arise at any step of the probate process, especially regarding challenges about a will’s validity. You will want a lawyer to help you address litigation of that sort.

While the Washington probate process is considered efficient, many requirements and steps must be considered. It may be in your best interests to hire a Washington probate lawyer to help with any probate issue. Your attorney can guide the process and represent you in case any lawsuit or legal dispute arises.


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