The days, weeks, and months after the death of a loved one are a sad and stressful time. One thing that no one looks forward to is figuring out the legal requirements that must be followed in order to settle the decedent’s estate. However, Washington law requires that certain steps must be followed in order to distribute the assets of a decedent and close their estate. The process of probate and estate administration are governed by Washington Probate and Trust Law, Wash. Rev. Code § § 11.02 et seq.
Before an estate can be closed and assets distributed, the decedent’s will, if they executed one, must be proved. This involves the will being submitted to the probate court which, in Washington, is part of the Superior Court system. The court will review the will and determine whether to admit it to probate. If so, the personal representative will be appointed, and the estate will go through a process of administration.
The personal representative is charged with caring for the duties and responsibilities of the administration process. The goal of administration is to wrap of the decedent’s business. One aspect of the decedent’s “business” is caring for the bills that they left behind. For example, the decedent may have left a variety of unpaid debt such as credit card bills, student loans, and a car note. These debts do not automatically go away. Creditors expect to be paid and the law requires that debt must be paid before assets can be distributed. After payment of creditors, the assets left in the estate can be distributed.
Administration is not a quick process. In fact, it can take up to 12 months. Sometimes it even takes longer, especially if there are complications such as probate disputes.
Probate Disputes and Litigation
With all of the emotions that accompany the loss of a loved one, complicated family relationships, and unfamiliar legal requirements, it is not surprising that disputes develop among those involved in the process such beneficiaries, heirs, creditors and fiduciaries. Probate litigation occurs when these disputes cannot be settled through negotiation and are brought to court to be litigated. While probate litigation may be necessary to resolve disputes, it can also be costly and prolong the process. A common type of dispute during the process is a will contest.
Even when there is no will to be probated, that estate is still required to go through a legal administration process. Part of the process is determining who gets the property. The law requires that the decedent’s next of kin, as determined by Washington’s intestate succession laws, are the only ones entitled to inherit. Wash. Rev. Code § § 11.04. Typically the surviving spouse and children are the ones who inherit. If there aren’t any, then other close relatives will inherit based on a predetermined order of priority. In some instances when there are no known close relatives, claimants come forward demanding a share of the estate. This brings an added complication to the process. The court may require that the claimant prove that they are indeed related to the decedent through a kinship hearing.
Estate administration only impacts property that is classified as “probate property.” Generally, probate property includes property that is individually owned by the decedent and that is not otherwise classified. Examples of probate property include jewelry, collectibles, real estate individually titled, vehicles, individually owned bank accounts, and household furnishings. Assets that are not probate property transfer automatically to the new owner and are not subject to probate include joint tenancy assets, joint bank accounts, bank accounts with a payable-on-death designation, property subject to community property agreements, retirement accounts with beneficiary designations, proceeds from life insurance, and property in living trusts.
Simplified Procedures for Small Estates
Estate administration can be long and difficult. The process can be burdensome on the family, especially if the estate is small, uncomplicated, and has minimal assets. Understanding this, Washington offers alternatives for qualified small estates.
Small estate affidavit. Under Wash. Rev. Code § § 11.62.010, if the estate is worth $100,000 or less, the traditional, court-supervised administration process can be skipped entirely. Instead, after a 40-day waiting period, anyone entitled to property can file a Small Estate Affidavit requesting immediate distribution of assets to which they are entitled. The affidavit must confirm that all the decedent’s debts have been paid as well as their funeral and burial expenses.
Settlement without court intervention. Wash. Rev. Code Ann. § § 11.68.011 describes a second alternative. If the estate is small and has sufficient assets to pay its debt, the personal representative can wrap up an estate without supervision from the court.