Probate may be defined as the legal process by which the property, assets, debts, and general affairs of a person who has died are settled and distributed amongst the rightful beneficiaries. The probate process is also used to validate wills, appoint a representative for the estate, and to make various other determinations regarding the deceased person’s property.
Like many states, the state of Washington has not formally adopted the Uniform Probate Code (UPC), which is a general uniform act intended to govern the distribution of decedent’s estates. Instead, Washington has its own probate code, codified in Title 11 of the Revised Code of Washington. As with many other states, Washington’s probate code may have some similarities to the UPC in some areas.
The probate process in Washington is often considered one of the least expensive and most efficient systems in the nation. Also, under Washington probate laws, smaller estates may qualify for even more simplified and streamlined proceedings.
What Does the Washington Probate Process Look Like?
In Washington, the probate process typically begins when a person files a petition with the court to probate a will. If the person died intestate (without a will), it is possible to file a “petition for letters of administration”. Generally, the Washington probate process involves the preparation and filing of various legal documents.
From there, an individual may be appointed to act as the deceased person’s personal representative for the process. If no person was named by the deceased person, the court will appoint an “administrator”, which is basically the same as a personal representative.
The administrator or personal representative will have various duties with regard to handling and settling the deceased person’s estate. The personal representative will typically be working with a lawyer to perform their duties. These duties may include:
- Notifying heirs and other people who may be receiving property from the estate;
- Identifying and inventorying the decedent’s assets;
- Determining the fair market value of those assets (usually through an appraisal);
- Determining other info of heirs and beneficiaries, such as their names, ages, and their relationship to the deceased person;
- Collecting and managing any debts or interest owed to (and by) the decedent;
- Oversee the estate in the event of any will contests or other lawsuits;
- Preparing, settling, and completing any outstanding tax issues;
- Transfer property to those who should receive it; and
- 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 the way that an administrator identified or appraised an item of property (for instance, if they had the value too low).
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 over $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; and
- “Transfer on death” deeds means that upon death, the property transfers automatically to the recipient.
Also, as mentioned, some estates can qualify for the “Small Estate” probate process in Washington. 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; or
- In cases where a Petition for Appointment of Personal Representative has been granted in any jurisdiction (or is pending).
Why is it Important to Have a Wills, Trusts, and Estates Lawyer in Washington?
As you can see, the probate process in Washington can have several dimensions and nuances to it. There are many options to choose from, and many different process which might not 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 with regards to challenges about a will’s validity.
Do I Need a Wills, Trusts, and Estate Lawyer for Probate in Washington?
While the Washington probate process is considered efficient, there are still many requirements and steps that must be considered. It may be in your best interests to hire a Washington Wills, Trusts, and Estates lawyer for help with any type of probate issue. Your attorney can provide guidance for the process, and can represent you in case any lawsuit or legal dispute arises.