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What Is the Washington State Probate Process?

What Is the Washington State Probate Process

When someone passes away, their money, property, and personal belongings must be distributed to the right people. This process is called probate.

Probate can seem complicated, but this guide from a Washington probate lawyer will explain the key steps in simple terms.

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What is Probate?

Probate is the legal process that happens after someone dies. It involves:

Proving the Will is Valid

One of the first major steps in the probate process is to prove that the deceased person’s will is legally valid.

The will must meet certain requirements under Washington state law to be accepted by the probate court.

The key requirements for a valid will in Washington include:

  • The testator (the person making the will) must have placed the will in writing.
  • The testator or someone else in the testator’s presence, and by their direction, must sign it.
  • T\wo qualified witnesses must sign it in the testator’s presence.

The witnesses play a key role in validating the will. They must be competent individuals who attest that the testator was of sound mind and not being influenced when they signed the will.

If there are any questions or disputes about the will’s validity, these witnesses may have to testify to the court during the probate process.

Identifying All Assets

Another key responsibility for the executor or administrator is to thoroughly identify and inventory all assets that comprise the deceased person’s estate. This includes all money, real estate, personal property, investments, businesses, and other valuable possessions owned by the individual.

Creating a complete inventory is important for several reasons. It allows the executor to properly appraise and protect all assets during probate. It also ensures that the rightful heirs receive all assets at the end of probate.

Paying Debts and Taxes

Before any remaining assets can be distributed from the estate, the executor must fully pay and settle all valid debts, bills, and taxes the deceased person owes.

Common debts and expenses that might require payment include:

  • Mortgage payments or outstanding loans
  • Credit card balances
  • Utility bills
  • Medical expenses
  • Income taxes and estate taxes

The executor must notify any potential creditors that probate has begun. Creditors then have a set period to make claims against the estate for any outstanding debts.

Distributing Remaining Assets

After all debts, taxes, and other expenses have been fully paid from the estate, the executor can then distribute the remaining assets to the rightful heirs as dictated by the will or Washington intestate succession laws.

For testate estates (with a valid will), the will specifies how the executor should divide assets and which heirs should receive which portions of the estate. The executor must abide by the exact terms laid out in the will.

In intestate cases with no will, state laws determine how assets get divided among surviving spouses, children, parents, siblings, or other relatives based on a strict order of priority.

Once the executor has correctly distributed assets, they must get court approval before the estate can officially close. The probate process takes place in probate court under the judge’s supervision. Usually, the deceased person’s will names an executor responsible for guiding the process.

Starting the Probate Process

To begin probate in Washington state, the executor named in the will must file a petition with the superior court in the county where the deceased person lived.

Key steps include:

  1. Filing the petition to open probate and pay a filing fee
  2. Providing the original will (if there is one)
  3. Getting approval from the court to act as the executor

Once the court approves, the executor will receive official documents called letters testamentary. These documents grant the executor authority over the deceased person’s assets.

If There Is No Will

If the deceased person didn’t leave a valid will, the probate process is a bit different. The court will appoint an administrator to handle the process instead of an executor named in a will. In Washington, any competent person over 18 or a qualified corporation can be the administrator, but spouses and other close family members have priority.

When there is no will, the laws of intestate succession determine how the person’s assets get distributed. This follows a strict order, giving priority to a surviving spouse and children first.

The intestate succession laws in Washington state split up the estate based on a hierarchy of heirs. A surviving spouse receives the entire estate if there are no surviving children.

If no surviving spouse exists, the entire estate passes to any surviving children in equal shares. After a spouse and children, the next level of heirs includes parents, siblings, or their descendants. More distant relatives only inherit assets if there are no surviving members at the higher heir levels.

If no legal heirs can be found, the state can claim any remaining assets from the estate. The intestate succession process gets more complex with larger estates and varied family situations, which is why legal guidance is highly beneficial.

Notifying Heirs and Creditors

One of the biggest jobs in probate is identifying and notifying all potential heirs and creditors.

Heirs are people who may be entitled to inherit assets from the deceased. Creditors are anyone the deceased person owed money to. Both must receive formal notification that probate has started.

Managing the Estate’s Assets

During probate, the executor or administrator is responsible for managing the estate’s assets.

This includes:

  • Making an inventory of all assets
  • Appraising and protecting valuable assets
  • Paying taxes, debts, and bills from the estate
  • Canceling subscriptions and credit cards
  • Handling court accountings

Court Accountings and Tax Returns

Executors must file court accountings periodically that account for all money coming in and going out of the estate. They must file tax returns for the deceased person and the estate itself.

Distributing Assets to Heirs

After all debts, taxes, and expenses have been paid from the estate, the remaining assets can go to the rightful heirs.

If there is a valid will, the will determines who gets what assets. If there is no will, state intestate succession laws dictate how assets get divided among heirs.

Closing the Estate

Once all assets from the estate have been properly distributed to the heirs according to the will or intestate succession laws, the executor or administrator must then take steps to formally close the estate through the probate court. Closing the estate is the final step that wraps up the probate process.

In Washington state, the executor or administrator must first file a final accounting and report with the court that provides a full accounting of all estate assets, expenses, distributions made to heirs, and any other financial transactions during probate administration.

This final accounting essentially serves as a complete record of everything that happened with the estate’s money and property.

The court will review the final accounting to ensure accuracy and that the executor properly managed and distributed the estate assets according to the deceased’s wishes or state laws. The court must approve the accounting before the estate can close.

If the court identifies any issues or has additional questions, the executor may need to provide further documentation or clarification.

Assuming the final accounting is approved, the next step is for the executor to file a petition or motion with the court requesting to close the estate and discharge the executor from further duties.

Any interested parties can raise objections to the estate’s closing at a hearing. As long as nobody raises valid objections at this hearing, the court will issue an order to close the estate and officially terminate the executor’s appointment.

With the court order in hand, the executor can then take final steps like:

  • Transferring titled assets to the new owners
  • Closing out any estate bank accounts
  • Paying final executor fees
  • Handling any other remaining administration tasks

Once everything is finalized according to the court’s directives, the executor’s duties are complete, and the estate officially closes and settles in the eyes of the law.

For larger or more complex estates, properly closing the estate can involve numerous court filings, hearings, audits, and significant documentation. This is why executors should work closely with an experienced Washington probate attorney to ensure all correct closing steps and procedures are followed according to state laws and court rules.

Probate Can Be Complicated

While this covers the basics, the reality is that probate can get extremely complicated depending on the specifics of the situation.

Some factors that can make probate more complex include:

Size and Value of the Estate

The overall size and value of the estate can greatly impact the complexity of the probate process. Larger, higher-value estates often involve more assets to value, manage, and distribute. This increases the time, effort, and potential for complications.

Probate is typically more straightforward for modest estates largely composed of cash, personal possessions, and a primary residence. However, for multimillion-dollar estates with varied assets like real estate investment portfolios, business interests, valuable collectibles, and complex investments, probate becomes more involved.

With high-value estates, executors frequently need to enlist professional services like appraisers, actuaries, accountants, and financial experts to properly value and administer unique assets. There are also typically more potential heirs and higher stakes. This increases the likelihood of disputes arising.

Disputes Over the Will or Inheritance

While most probate cases proceed relatively smoothly, disputes can sometimes arise over the will’s validity or how assets should be distributed to heirs. These disputes can throw a major wrench into the process.

Common reasons for probate disputes include allegations that the will is forged or was signed under coercion or undue influence. There may also be challenges if the deceased lacked the mental capacity to draft their will. Disputes often erupt between heirs who feel they were unfairly treated or written out of the will.

When disputes occur, what was supposed to be a straightforward transfer of assets through probate court can turn into complex, drawn-out litigation. This ties up the probate process for months or even years while the disputes get hashed out. Having an experienced probate lawyer is absolutely essential when serious challenges emerge.

Types of Assets Included

The specific types of assets involved in the estate can be a major factor in how complex probate gets. Assets other than cash, typical investment accounts, and personal property demand legal acumen to properly value, manage, and distribute.

Real estate holdings like investment properties, timeshares, and real estate business interests require evaluating deeds, titles, and mortgage obligations. Collectible assets like artwork, jewelry, vehicles, antiques, etc., need professional appraisals and may require insurance or security.

If the deceased owned interests in a business, whether a sole proprietorship, partnership, or corporation, you need a probate lawyer to handle them.

Other complex assets like intellectual property rights, remainder interests in trusts, oil/gas royalties, annuities, and retirement accounts each come with their own regulations and requirements for handling through probate.

Creditor Claims Against the Estate

Part of the probate process requires notifying potential creditors that the estate is now open, allowing creditors to make claims for outstanding debts. Dealing with creditor claims, especially for larger estates, can quickly become a sticky situation.

Creditors can seemingly come out of the woodwork seeking payment during probate. Executors must review all claims and decide which are valid and require payment from the estate’s assets.

If the executor denies claims as invalid, creditors can then escalate the situation through formal objections and potential litigation in probate court to pursue getting paid from the estate. This leads to additional time and expense, as the executor must handle the dispute with the creditors.

Need Help With Probate? Contact a Washington Probate Attorney

If you need to go through the probate process after a loved one’s passing, don’t do it alone. An experienced Washington probate lawyer can guide you through every step and ensure you fulfill all legal requirements.

Contact a qualified estate planning attorney today to discuss your situation.