A personal representative is ultimately responsible for all aspects of the administration of an estate. People tend to focus more on the ultimate bequests (gifts) that flow from a probate, however, the PR is also responsible for the estate expenses and debts owed by the deceased individual.
The first question to consider when evaluating estate expenses is whether or not the property at issue is even subject to probate. In the world of probates, property is either subject to the probate or is a “non-probate” asset. A rule of thumb for determining whether property is subject to probate is to ascertain whether a different document—not the will—directs how the property will be distributed.
RCW 11.02.091 provides that joint accounts with rights of survivorship, property owned as joint tenants, property septic to a community property agreement are all non-probate assets. What this means is that the terms of those individual legal arrangements dictate how the property is to transfer to a third party upon death of the original owner. Those non-probate assets, therefore, cannot be used to pay for the estate expenses.
RCW 11.44.015 requires PRs to establish an inventory of the estate within three months of the start of a probate. The PR is typically authorized to collect and preserve assets owned by the decedent, defend against claims on the estate, and sell (usually with the permission from the court, unless the will affirmatively allows it) estate assets. Ultimately, it is the PR who’s responsible for paying the expenses of the estate. These expenses should be paid from the proceeds of the estate, however, if the PR uses personal funds (for instance, to retain an attorney for assistance), he is entitled to reimbursement of those funds. Finally, the PR is also entitled to reasonable compensation for his or her services.
The probate process will eventually come to a conclusion, where the actual property of the estate is distributed to the designated heirs. As expected, the PR is responsible for this final step as well. When a probate is winding down, the PR will produce a final report. This report lists the assets of the estate, debts paid, and claims resolved. The PR will also submit a notice of completion of probate as well, signaling that the PR is prepared to make the final distributions to the heirs and ultimately close the probate. Individuals who disagree with the closing of the probate will have 30 days to file a formal objection with the probate court.