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Understanding the Purpose of Probate

When a loved one dies, they pass their property and assets along to their beneficiaries. Probate is a legal process that ensures that the property of the deceased goes to the rightful heirs. When someone passes away, they leave behind their estate, which consists of property, assets, and debts, among other things. While there are some exceptions, in most cases, a person’s estate must go through probate in Washington state after their death. It is helpful to understand the purpose of probate so you are prepared when the time comes.

What is Probate?

Probate in Washington state is the judicial process by which a decedent’s estate is valued, beneficiaries are determined, an executor in charge of estate distribution is declared, and the estate is legally transferred to the determined beneficiaries. The probate process does not supersede the need for a will or trust. A person who dies intestate is one who dies without a will. In that case, the deceased person’s estate will transfer based on the law since there was no document that provides for beneficiaries.

Personal Representative

A personal representative, also called an executor, is the person designated to handle the estate after a person’s death. The personal representative takes care of many tasks for the estate, including inventorying, managing assets, paying taxes and debts, and distributing payments from the estate to the beneficiaries.

The personal representative acts on behalf of the deceased in all matters regarding the estate. Generally, the deceased names a personal representative. However, if no personal representative is named, the court will name one. The personal representative will get paid for their work from the estate. The representative may seek legal guidance from a probate attorney to assist with the probate process. This is particularly helpful in complicated cases.

What Does the Personal Representative Do?

Washington state has a rather straightforward probate process as compared to many other states. The personal representative must obtain a copy of the deceased’s will and must know the names and contact information of the beneficiaries. You will also need a few certified copies of the death certificate. To open probate, the personal representative must petition with the court, provide the will and other information and sign a sworn statement. Then, you must notify all of the interested parties.

Next, you will gather documents and inventory the estate. You must notify creditors and handle all the debts of the estate. You will need to properly manage the bookkeeping of the estate during the process. Once debts are paid, the estate assets are distributed to the beneficiaries. Once all of that is complete, the personal representative will close the probate.

Is Probate Necessary?

Probate is not required by law in Washington state. However, if there was a will, you must file it with the court no later than 40 days following the death. This is called a Small Estate Affidavit. The probate process ensures that the estate is properly handled and transferred following a death. If the estate of the deceased includes real estate that has a value of less than $100,000, the law does not require probate.

Proceeds from retirement accounts or life insurance do not generally have to go through the probate process. A “death deed” allows for the transfer of a home to prevent it from being part of probate. A revocable trust is a way to avoid probate because it transfers ownership to the trust, which names beneficiaries. Probate is a way to make certain that the estate of the deceased is properly handled and distributed.

Who Oversees Probate?

Probate is a legal process that is overseen by the probate court. The probate court receives requests and documents and oversees the entire process. If there are any problems with the process, the court will step in to resolve the matter. The court will appoint a personal representative if the deceased person does not name one. The personal representative does not have to be an attorney or accountant, but the services of a knowledgeable probate attorney will help guide the personal representative through the process and ensure that you follow the law.

How Long Does Probate Take?

The length of time it takes for the estate to go through probate varies based on the complexity. Generally, you need to make sure that you allow enough time for beneficiaries and creditors to be notified and debts and taxes to be paid. You need to ensure that you have taken care of all the debts and identified all the assets of the estate before you complete the process. Probate may take longer in cases where someone files a dispute. When this happens, it is best to discuss the matter with a qualified probate attorney.

What Happens if Someone Dies Without a Will?

A person who dies without a will is said to die “intestate.” This simply means they died without a will. If a person dies intestate, Washington state laws provide for a method of property distribution. The person’s estate will pass to the spouse, children, or parents. If the spouse is not alive, the estate passes to the children. If there are no children, it will pass to the parents. If the parents are no longer alive, the estate passes to the siblings. A skilled probate lawyer can help determine how the estate will be distributed according to the statute.

Because the law does not account for complicated families, such as stepchildren, the situation can become complex. It is therefore advisable to have a will in place to name those that you wish to inherit your estate after your death. Keep your will up-to-date so you are always sure that you take care of the people you love after you pass away.

Probate is not generally a difficult process, but it does require some effort. If your loved one passes away, you will want to talk to a probate attorney as soon as possible. Your lawyer will facilitate probate and relieve some of the stress of the process. To learn more about probate, contact us at View Ridge Family Law & Estate Planning at (206) 502-4748 to schedule a consultation.

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