probate law

Tacoma Probate Lawyers

After a person in Tacoma passes away, probate is the legal process to properly distribute the assets of an estate (the entity that owns them after a person passes away). There are many steps of the probate process, and probate can be complicated if anyone raises legal disputes in regard to the will of the deceased person.


Who May Serve as the Personal Representative?

The appointment of a personal representative (the “executor/executrix”) is an important first step in the probate process. This individual, commonly working with a probate law attorney, has significant influence and authority over the decedent’s estate. They’re entrusted to act on behalf of a deceased individual, ostensibly for the benefit of creditors and third-party heirs (often the decedent’s children and family members). Courts expect the job will be done effectively and in good faith.

Naming someone as the executor of the estate doesn’t always mean that he or she will serve as personal representative. For instance, the named person may die before the decedent, or may decide not to get involved.

Who Cannot Serve as a Personal Representative?

There are two general disqualifications: “inherent” and “innocent.”

Inherent Disqualification

There are many individuals and other legal entities who can’t legally serve as a personal representative, according to RCW 11.36.010:

  • Corporations: A company cannot serve as a personal representative, except companies designed for such responsibilities. Trust companies, national banks, and professional service corporations (e., law firms) can serve as personal representatives.

  • Minors: An individual who has not reached the age of majority (over 18 years old).

  • Persons lacking legal capacity (of unsound mind): This may be the result of advanced age or physical or mental illness.

  • Felons: Someone convicted of a felony in the past, or while acting as a personal representative, is disqualified from the role.

  • Misdemeanants of crimes of “moral turpitude”: These are crimes related to a breach of an affirmative, fiduciary obligation and connected to dishonesty. Though it may not carry the same possible sentence as a felony, the crime may show that someone shouldn’t be trusted with access and control over an individual’s estate.

  • Nonresidents of the state who do not have a qualified resident agent.

In addition, under RCW 11.28.160, a superior court judge can remove and replace any personal representative “for any cause deemed sufficient.” Some examples are:

  • A personal representative was disqualified when it was found that he fraudulently removed a decedent’s will from a safe deposit box with the intent to hide its contents.

  • A family member was disqualified due to his problems with creditors. This person had a long history of hiding property to avoid creditors.

Innocent Disqualification

There are also “innocent” disqualifications, which are:

  • Serious illness or death

  • Resignation

  • If the estate started without a will but it’s later found, the estate’s administrator may be removed.

Removal of a Personal Representative During Probate Due to Conduct During Their Handling of the Estate

The person can be removed from the role during the probate process because they failed to execute the trust faithfully and breached their fiduciary duty to the estate. RCW 11.28.250 lists reasons why a personal representative may be removed:

  • Waste, embezzlement, or mismanagement of the estate, or any situation suggesting that any of that is about to occur

  • Fraud upon the estate

  • Incompetency

  • Permanent removal from Washington

  • Neglecting the estate

  • Any other just cause.

To qualify for removal, the personal representative must be more than simply annoying, slow, or inefficient. A probate attorney seeking the personal representative’s removal would have to show actual damage (or that it was about happen) to the parties interested in the estate.

Often, family members may be personal representatives; and there may have been disagreements or dislike prior to the decedent’s death that worsened afterwards. This won’t be enough to justify the formal removal of the personal representative. One must show that the individual did something to harm the estate and the heirs.

“Any other just cause” can include signs of dishonesty or hiding information when dealing with estate assets. If an estate asset is intentionally kept off the estate’s formal inventory, it won’t be used to pay creditors or be distributed to beneficiaries. This raises the possibility that the personal representative may plan on stealing it for their own use.  Talk to our probate lawyer in Tacoma if you have concerns about a personal representative who will handle, or is handling, probate for an estate.

The Roles of a Probate Attorney and Personal Representative

Our Tacoma Probate Lawyers Explain Who Can Help Probate an Estate and How

A probate attorney and the personal representative of the estate are both recognized as “officers” of the court. A probate attorney helps the personal representative do their job in complying with court orders, state laws, and the will’s provisions.

The personal representative is obliged to act in good faith regarding the estate. A court once described it effectively in this manner:

“Under RCW 11.48.030, an executor is chargeable in his accounts for the whole estate of a deceased. The executor is an officer of the court and in a fiduciary relationship to those beneficially interested in the estate. He is obligated to exercise the utmost good faith and utilize the skill, judgment and diligence that an ordinarily cautious and prudent person would employ in the…management of his own affairs…. He must perform his duties not only for the benefit of the legatees but must also protect the estate from invalid and doubtful claims…while protecting the rights of valid creditors…. It is his duty to settle an estate as quickly as possible but without sacrifice to the estate…and he is liable for any breach of his responsibility which causes loss to another…. His trust must be fulfilled with conscientious fidelity whether his charge is large or small.” Wilson’s Estate v. Livingston, 8 Wn. App. 519, 527-528, 507 P.2d 902, 909 (1973).”

The personal representative’s responsibilities during the probate process include treating the decedent’s assets as though they were his own. He or she is to act in an honest, cautious, prudent, and effective manner when handling and distributing its assets.

Given the nature of the probate in question (especially if it’s sizable or complicated), a personal representative would be very wise to seek legal counsel from a probate attorney. Because the personal representative could potentially be held personally liable for making mistakes (out of their own money and assets, not from the estate’s) there’s a lot at stake.

When you seek help from a Tacoma probate attorney, the fees are generally paid from the estate.

A personal representative has a fiduciary duty to the estate and the heirs. A probate attorney who represents the estate also has fiduciary obligations to the personal representative and the estate’s heirs. By having legal representation, the personal representative has taken an important step to get advice on how to proceed and protect against liability.

Our Team of Probate Attorneys in Tacoma

How Our Tacoma Probate Law Attorneys Can Help throughout the Probate Process

Our experienced probate lawyers in Tacoma can assist you and your family in many different ways, including the following:

  • Before you pass away, legal documents can be created and existing ones be changed to help ensure your probate process goes smoothly for your family. We can evaluate your financial and familial situation to identify and draft any necessary estate planning documents. We can regularly review your estate plan and advise you when you need to make changes or additions to your plan because of changed circumstances.

  • Assist in the probate process to ensure all requirements are met and procedures are followed, which will limit delays or complications.

  • Advise executors throughout the administration of an estate in probate.

  • Represent the rights and interests of beneficiaries of a will or trust who wish to contest a will or challenge the actions of an executor or trustee.

To learn more about our estate planning and probate services, please contact our Tacoma office of Dickson Frohlich as soon as possible.

We can help you protect your property and your family members, so call us today at 253-572-1000 or contact us online for your free consultation.

Attorney Thomas L. Dickson

Thomas L. Dickson

Tom is an experienced litigator and the founding partner of the Dickson Frohlich. For over 30 years, he’s helped clients prevail in their real estate, construction, and business law matters.

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Attorney Robert P. Dickson

Robert P. Dickson

The core of Rob’s legal practice is civil litigation, with an emphasis on construction, real estate, and business law. He represents a wide range of clients, from large construction companies to individual homeowners.

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Attorney Daniel J. Frohlich

Daniel J. Frohlich

Dan’s legal practice focuses on civil litigation, real estate law, business law and probate law. He has more than 10 years of experience as an attorney serving clients throughout Western Washington.

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Attorney Mark S. Johnson

Mark S. Johnson

Mark’s legal practice focuses on civil litigation, real estate law, business law and family law. He works tirelessly to help his clients achieve the outcome they are looking for.

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Attorney Daniel E. Pizarro

Daniel E. Pizarro

As an associate at Dickson Frohlich, Daniel is active in the firm’s civil litigation department. His practice is mainly centered around real estate law, landlord-tenant law, construction law, and probate law.

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Attorney George Knight

George Knight

As an associate at Dickson Frohlich, George is active in the firm’s civil litigation and transactional departments. His practice is mainly centered around business law, real estate law, construction law, employment law, and probate law.

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Attorney Alexander J. Wisbey

Alexander J. Wisbey

Alexander Wisbey comes to the firm with 5 years of experience as a litigator and trial attorney. He has first chaired several jury trials and has extensive experience handling arbitrations, mediations, depositions, and settlements.

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Attorney Jennifer Yoo

Jennifer Yoo

Jennifer is an associate attorney at Dickson Frohlich where her current practice focuses on real estate law, contract and commercial disputes, and business law.

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Attorney Cambria A. Queen

Cambria A. Queen

Cambria is an Associate with Dickson Frohlich PS in the civil litigation department, where she practices primarily real estate and probate law.

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Attorney Kelley Duggan

Kelley Duggan

As an associate at Dickson Frohlich, Kelley practices in a wide range of areas, including estate planning, probate, civil litigation, and intellectual property law.

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Attorney Katherine E. Baals

Katherine E. Baals

As an associate at Dickson Frohlich, Katherine practices in a range of areas, including real estate, construction, business, and civil litigation.

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FAQs Our Tacoma Probate Attorneys Hear from Clients

Probate in Washington can be confusing, and applicable laws are hard to navigate. For this reason, you likely have many questions about the probate process and how to prepare for it. The following are some common questions our Tacoma probate lawyers hear:

Now is the right time to talk to Dickson Frohlich. If you have any assets or property, you and your family can benefit from creating an estate plan, especially if you have a spouse or children. It is a myth that you need to be older or particularly wealthy to need an estate planning attorney. If the estate plan is done properly and accounts for issues that may arise later, the probate process may be completed fairly quickly and without undue expense.

The assets subject to probate are those held in the decedent’s name at the time of their death, which do not have designated beneficiaries.

The executor (male) or executrix (female) is a person nominated in a will as the personal representative. This should be someone trustworthy and capable of handling the estate and its many responsibilities. The court makes a ruling on who the personal representative will be.

Depending on many issues, the probate process typically takes six months to a year. If the estate is complex or there are many legal challenges, it could go much longer. Speak with our Tacoma probate lawyer if you have concerns about how long probate of an estate may take.

A skilled estate planning lawyer can help you avoid putting your property through probate after you pass away. Forming trusts, titling real property in a certain way, and having payable-on-death accounts are only some examples of methods of avoiding probate. You may want to structure this so probate is unnecessary or have some property pass in other ways so probate is simpler, faster, and less expensive. You need to weigh the costs and benefits of avoiding probate.

A judge, who acts as a neutral third party, oversees the probate process and ensures that it is complying with the law. The judge can resolve disputes that may come up. If handled properly, the estate may be able to end claims against it in a way that’s relatively quick and fair to all those involved.

A personal representative can publish (in a local newspaper) a formal notice of the probate court proceeding. If this is done and a notice is sent to all known creditors, they will have four months in which to file claims against the estate. If they fail to do so, their claims won’t be accepted. Otherwise, when such notices are not submitted, creditors have two years from the date of the person’s death to bring claims. Since publishing and mailing notices greatly shortens the time in which claims can be filed, that’s usually the route a personal representative will take.

If the debts are more than the estate’s assets, the personal representative, based on state law, decides which ones will be paid. A family allowance has the highest priority, then probate costs, funeral expenses, medical costs of the last illness and taxes. If this isn’t handled properly, a creditor who is short-changed can challenge how the estate is being handled.

The personal representative also must file final state and federal income tax returns for the deceased. The estate may also need to pay federal taxes if it is very large ($11.7 million or more), and an estate must be sizable for state taxes to apply ($2.193 million or more).

The ease or difficulty of probate is largely decided by the steps you take prior to passing away. Some of the many things you can do to simplify the probate process for your family include:

  • Think about your estate plan as a comprehensive package. While essential, a last will and testament is generally inadequate to address all of your estate planning needs. You may need to draft and sign other important documents and instructions as well. Our probate attorneys in Tacoma can explain all of the options that apply to you and your priorities.
  • Don’t wait to design your estate plan. Accidents, injuries, and illnesses can happen at any time, to people of all ages. If you are suddenly incapacitated, you want to ensure that your wishes are clear and that you and your family are properly cared for.
  • Carefully consider who you name as executor. Working as a personal representative requires time, energy, intelligence, organization, and patience. Make sure they’re willing and able to serve when the time comes. You can also name alternate executors in case something unexpected happens.
  • Review and revise your estate plan regularly. A will that you drafted after getting married will likely need to be updated after you have children or after they grow up. Your changing finances may also require more sophisticated estate planning tools as you get older.
  • Discuss your estate plans with your beneficiaries. If they’re disappointed or angry with your decisions, you can explain why you want your assets distributed in a certain way. You may restructure your plans so your family is on board and there is less chance of a legal challenge afterward.
  • Pay your taxes and bills. The more debt and taxes you leave unpaid at your death, the more the personal representative needs to deal with, and the less your beneficiaries will receive. It also increases the number of parties seeking your assets and potentially filing legal challenges to how your estate is handled.

Do you have other questions about probate? Our Tacoma probate lawyer also handles estate planning services and can answer a wide range of legal questions that you may have. Rather than putting yourself at risk of future legal proceedings, call us for help at 253-572-1000. If you want the probate process to go as smoothly as possible, let’s discuss your situation.

Featured Testimonial

“I’ve had the pleasure of working with Dickson Law for a few years now. I’ve found them to be super professional and responsive, but I most appreciate that they operate with integrity.”

Review by: Karmen F.
Reviewing: Tacoma & Seattle Probate Attorneys
Date published: 2015-10-10
Rating: ★★★★★ 5 / 5 stars
*DISCLAIMER: Please note that every case is different and presents its own unique set of variables. Thus, no guarantee can be made that you will obtain the same or similar result as a previous client.

Our Probate Attorneys in Tacoma Can Also Help You with Estate Law

Having a lawyer who is knowledgeable about probate laws in Washington can help save you time, energy, and stress during this process. Our team of skilled probate attorneys in Tacoma at Dickson Frohlich regularly handle the following estate planning and probate matters:

  • Last Will and Testament: A will is a legal document where you can state who you want your assets to go to and who you want to be guardian of your child. Without a will, your assets will pass to your next of kin. Your child may become a ward of the state, or multiple parties may come forward to be named your child’s guardian, perhaps people you don’t trust to do the job. Learn more about wills and how an attorney can help with them.

  • Power of Attorney: A document allowing you to delegate decision making to other people. A POA can cover financial and healthcare decisions. Properly done, a power of attorney may prevent a guardianship process in the future if you become incapacitated.

  • Trust Formation: A trust is a legal entity which cares for certain assets for someone’s benefit. You can put assets aside to care for your children while you are living, and the trust can continue to do this after your death. Creation of a trust can be a way to have assets used after your death without them going through the probate process.

  • Estate Planning: This is the process of thinking about and planning for your future wants and needs. To accommodate them, your estate plan may create a will, powers of attorney, and trusts.

  • Financial Elder Abuse Recovery: The elderly, especially those with dementia, are vulnerable to financial abuse by family members or those paid to care for them. Their emotions may be manipulated by the abuser to get financial gain; they may be threatened with violence so they’ll give money or property away; or their signature may be forged on checks or other financial documents. If this occurs, the money and assets may be recovered through legal actions. Precautions can be taken, like a financial power of attorney, to lessen the chances of this happening.

  • Guardianship: Probate court is where guardianships are determined. They involve people who may be incapacitated and unable to handle their own financial affairs or who need someone to oversee their physical care. This is a serious step, and courts need evidence to justify a guardianship. The court will determine whether the person is incapacitated and, if so, to what degree. The amount of control another person will have over their affairs will be ordered to protect their well-being.

  • Probate and Estate Administration: This is the process where the assets of a deceased person are transferred to a legal entity (the estate) and distributed to pay debts and taxes, with remaining assets going to beneficiaries (named in a will) or heirs (next of kin, if there isn’t a will). Learn more about how attorneys can help with probate and estate administration.

  • Trust Accounting Litigation: If you created a trust, or are a beneficiary, and you don’t think it’s being properly handled by the trustee, legal action in the form of trust accounting litigation can be filed to see how assets were spent and who received them.

  • Undue Influence in Wills: Claiming undue influence by someone over the person who created the will it is a way to challenge its legality. This comes up if a paid caregiver or unexpected family member receives a large gift through a will. They may be accused of manipulating the person to the point that they lost their free will, so the will shouldn’t be enforced as written.

  • Defective Trusts and Wills: How a will or trust was created, or the circumstances around its creation, may make it legally defective and unenforceable.

  • Contested Trusts and Wills: Perceived problems with the will or trust can be the basis of legal challenges in a will contest or contest of a trust.

  • Probate Litigation: Will and trust challenges, along with guardianship issues and problems with powers of attorney, are part of litigation in probate court.

  • Litigation for Abused Beneficiaries of Trusts and Wills: Beneficiaries of wills or trusts may be cheated or ignored during the probate process or during the administration of a trust and thus have a basis for filing suit.

When a loved one passes, it is often difficult to have to deal with the tasks of distributing his or her estate assets (and taking care of any lingering creditors). Probate attorneys in Tacoma have specific approaches to facilitate a probate case that are sensitive to the clients’ recent loss.

For most of us, dealing with probate (and a probate attorney) is uncommon, which is a good thing. As a result the probate process is a mystery to most people, including many attorneys. We hope this page will help you get a basic understanding of the probate process, of when a probate attorney is needed, and why hiring a Dickson Frohlich probate lawyer in Tacoma is a good investment.

Summary of the Probate Process

How Our Tacoma Probate Attorney Can Help at Every Stage

Estates are probated whether or not the deceased had a will. In practical terms, a probate has three stages. Probate’s length and cost is related to its complexity. Bear in mind that the effort required in progressing through each stage depends on the probate process and the complexity of the decedent’s estate.

Three Stages of Probate

Stage 1

The first stage of the probate process involves our probate attorney preparing the necessary initial documentation that will be filed with the court. This includes the petition to open the probate, the oath of the personal representative (the person administering the estate, subject to court control), and the proposed order appointing or approving the personal representative.

These pleadings serve to engage the court and, perhaps most importantly, have the court recognize the proposed personal representative. While our probate attorney may do much of the legal leg work in a probate case, the personal representative organizes it, inventories assets, decides what bills should be paid, and disburses remaining assets (if any) to beneficiaries. If someone is named as executor in a will, the person will probably be accepted by the court as personal representative. In extreme cases, the person could also be removed by the court for incompetence or wrongdoing. If there is no will, someone (normally a family member) should come forward and ask that the court appoint them as personal representative.

This first stage in the probate process typically takes most of our Tacoma probate attorney’s time. Not only is he or she called upon to draft specific probate documentation, but the attorney may appear before the court as well. The process is very detailed and can be delayed, and made more expensive, if it’s not done properly. There are subtle but important notice requirements in the initial stage. Probate’s complexity is part of the reason you should retain our Tacoma probate attorney at Dickson Frohlich. Even though the process may appear simple on the surface, it can be very complicated when all of the various elements are taken together.

Removal of a Personal Representative due to Conduct during his or her handling of the Estate

Stage 2

The second stage of a probate shifts from our probate attorney to the personal representative. Probate is much more than preparing and filing pleadings. Its main purpose is to take possession and control of the decedent’s assets, determine their debts and prioritize them, pay what bills and taxes are required, then distribute assets based on the terms of the will (or on state law if there is no will).

This process of putting the estate’s affairs in order can be difficult. It can be difficult to figure out where the various assets held by the decedent are located. The decedent may have investment accounts, annuities, or even life insurance policies that only the decedent truly knew about.

Stage 3

The third and final stage in probate occurs after bills, taxes, and fees are paid and the distributions have occurred. The personal representative did his or her job, and the matter is essentially ready to close.

Our Tacoma probate attorney prepares a pleading to be filed with the court stating that the probate case has been successfully completed; this is known as the Declaration of Completion of Probate. It reports to the court that the process is complete and the personal representative should be discharged from their obligations.

Is Probate Required in Washington?

Is probate needed for all estates? If the decedent has a very small estate, has prepared carefully in life, or has few or no assets subject to probate, the answer is “no.” That situation is the exception, not the rule, however. Though probate can take time and money, avoiding it may be more costly and not worth the effort. If you’re unsure about whether probate is appropriate for your situation, contact us so we can review your circumstances.

Get Help from Our Skilled Tacoma Probate Attorneys

At Dickson Frohlich, our Tacoma probate attorneys have helped many clients plan for the future to ease the burden on their loved ones and to ensure that their hard-earned property is distributed according to their wishes.

If you would like to discuss our probate and estate planning services, call our office today at 253-572-1000.