When a person dies, one of the first steps you should take is to determine whether or not they drafted a last will and testament during their life. If a will exists, Washington State law1 requires that you file it with the probate court within 40 days of the death. For this reason, the existence of a will should be determined as soon as possible after your loss. The law also permits a person to file their will with the court prior to their death, in part to ensure that the right will is used.
A will can be used to guide different aspects of the probate process. First, a will can designate who the deceased person wanted to serve as their personal representative of their estate. This is an important designation, as the personal representative will have many duties throughout the probate process regarding the administration of the estate. A will-maker should carefully choose someone they believe will be capable of and impartial in administering the estate. If no personal representative is specified in a will, the probate court will appoint someone it believes is capable of the tasks.
Identifying Assets and Beneficiaries
A will can then set out which property goes to which beneficiary. This can be extremely helpful in determining which assets exist and which beneficiaries need to be notified of the death and probate case. While a will may likely not account for all assets and property that need to be identified, it can specifically mention heirlooms , accounts , and other assets that may not be readily identifiable. Further, certain beneficiaries may be friends or charities that would not have otherwise been considered by the personal representative.
Once important assets and beneficiaries are identified, the will provides instructions on what should be distributed to whom. Such instructions can help avoid disputes over who gets what, as beneficiaries can refer to the will for justification of the distribution. It also simplifies the process as there can be minimal court involvement if the will is specific in its distribution instructions.
The above are only some examples of the role a will plays during the probate process. While wills generally simplify the process, it can also be complicated if certain disputes arise regarding the validity of the will.