This website provides comprehensive information on Washington State probate law, practices, and procedures. Some users come to our site to research issues, with a plan to work through the probate process themselves without an attorney. That may be a good choice if an estate is small and very simple. Otherwise, you may want to consider retaining an attorney to help you.
After a person dies, their assets pass through probate if they are not placed into a trust or can be transferred some other way. The deceased will probably also have debts the estate must pay. Probate is the legal process where:
- A will is verified
- The estate is administered
- Bills and taxes are paid
- Remaining assets go to beneficiaries listed in a will or the next of kin if there is no will.
Some of these basic elements can be addressed by a person who lacks legal knowledge. After a person dies, a personal representative will be in charge of handling the estate, and sometimes that person isn’t equipped to take care of the steps required. There may be unexpected issues with the estate, or conflict could arise. A probate attorney has not only the experience to identify issues before they become a problem, but also the skill to handle — and perhaps prevent — potential conflict.
What Does a Washington Probate Lawyer Do?
A Washington probate lawyer can help the personal representative with many legal issues. The lawyer can also represent parties who want to challenge the will’s validity or the personal representative’s acts. He or she can also work for creditors seeking payment from the estate. Much of what an attorney representing the personal representative does depends on whether there’s a will or not. You can learn more about details of probate in Washington state by studying our glossary of terms regarding probate.
When probate attorneys in Washington work on behalf of the estate, their biggest role is to make certain the administration is done according to state law. The attorney will ensure administration of the estate goes as smoothly and transparently as possible. A well-run estate should prevent legal challenges, but the attorney would defend the estate if they arise.
How a Washington Probate Attorney Handles an Estate If There Is a Will
The probate attorney will examine the will and the circumstances surrounding it. He or she wants to make sure the principal (the person creating the will) didn’t sign it under duress or other circumstances that would invalidate it. If a party claims the will shouldn’t be probated because it is not valid, the process shifts to resolving this issue. This includes a formal hearing and taking evidence.
How an Estate is Managed If There is No Will
If the deceased didn’t create a will, the person died “intestate.” Since there’s no will naming an executor, a judge could choose among those who ask to be the personal representative. An attorney can help someone seeking the role of personal representative by making sure the right filings are made. The core elements of that person’s role are largely the same whether or not there’s a will: obtain and organize assets, pay taxes and debts, and distribute remaining assets based on state law.
How Probate Attorneys in Washington Help
Probate law involves a lot of “behind the scenes” work. The probate lawyer makes sure the process goes smoothly and that the estate complies with Washington state laws. There are several types of tasks Washington probate attorneys perform.
Dealing with Creditors and Beneficiaries
If the lawyer represents the estate, they may be especially helpful in handling the claims of creditors, beneficiaries or heirs. When a personal representative is appointed, notices are posted in local newspapers where the deceased lived. This step notifies creditors who want to file claims with the estate. The probate attorney can help ensure that notices are properly posted, avoid possible problems.
If all the beneficiaries and heirs are agreeable and cooperating, distributing assets could be informal. If not, and people are upset with who gets what through the process, a lawyer could be very useful. He or she can make sure the process follows the law to prevent legal claims or at least make them difficult to prove. The attorney can write letters and make phone calls to those involved to prevent or discourage the filing of legal challenges.
Other Work Probate Attorneys Provide to Benefit the Estate
There are any number of functions an attorney, or his or her staff, can handle:
- Collect life insurance proceeds
- Identify, organize, and secure estate assets
- Get appraisals of the deceased’s real property
- Help with paying bills and debts
- Create and file forms and documents as required by the probate court
- Determine if estate or inheritance taxes are due and ensure they’re paid
- Resolve income tax issues
- Manage estate bank accounts
- Transfer assets from the estate to the appropriate beneficiaries
- Make the final asset disbursements after bills and taxes are paid.
Mistakes a Washington Probate Lawyer Can Help You Avoid
There are many possible problems a personal representative can face, despite their best efforts to administer the estate properly. If you are the personal representative of an estate, you should be aware of what could create problems with the probate process. They include:
1. Failure to Keep Accurate Accounting Records
As the personal representative, you must control and account for all the estate’s assets. You need to maintain accurate records of everything you do. This is key to properly paying taxes, distributing assets, and submitting a final accounting. Without legal counsel, you may:
- Use the wrong schedules
- Inadequately describe receipts and disbursements
- Incorrectly show carrying and market values, gains, losses, dividends, and interest payments for investments.
When the estate is settled, all the figures must add up and make sense. If not, objections may come from heirs, beneficiaries, or the judge.
2. Not Communicating with the Beneficiaries or Heirs
If they’re not kept up to date, informed, and engaged during the process, beneficiaries may become suspicious, confrontational, and possibly start legal actions. Letting beneficiaries know what steps are currently in process and what comes next may save a lot of time and grief. Without anxious parties involved, the process can go much more smoothly. An experienced probate attorney would know how to keep the parties involved and make sure everyone is fully informed.
3. Distribution of Assets Too Early in the Process
Estates often don’t have enough assets to pay debts, liabilities, and taxes, plus remaining funds to distribute to heirs or beneficiaries. When that’s the case, creditors get priority, and any assets that remain after bills are paid can be distributed. If the Washington laws governing payments to creditors and distribution of assets aren’t followed, the personal representative could be held personally liable. This is a legal risk many people may not want to take.
4. Calculation of Estate Taxes
An estate may be subject to federal gift and estate taxes. As part of the probate process, estate tax returns must be filed. If there are tax problems, they could substantially complicate and delay the estate’s final settlement.
5. Improper Management of Assets
A personal representative must secure the deceased’s assets as soon as possible. You may need to close bank accounts, make sure a business owned by the person is still operating, or physically lock up a house and arrange for its maintenance and repair.
When you’re going through this task, you are likely to encounter some assets that must pass through probate and some that do not. Those that aren’t probate-related include assets in a trust, life insurance proceeds, some jointly held property, and funds in some retirement accounts. You must know the difference between probate and non-probate assets and what to do with them. A Washington probate lawyer would have the legal understanding of how to address all types of assets. Without the help of a lawyer, a personal representative will likely run into problems.
Why You Should Seek the Help of a Seasoned Probate Attorney
Our probate lawyers at Dickson Frohlich not only prevent problems for an estate, they do the necessary work and research so the personal representative doesn’t have to. This means a personal representative can take time to grieve if they knew the deceased, continue to work, care for their families, and go forward with their regular daily lives.
If you’re concerned about attorney fees, it may be reassuring to know that the personal representative doesn’t pay for legal services. They’re paid from estate funds. If the personal representative makes a serious mistake, he or she could be sued for mishandling the estate. Hiring a probate attorney can shield you from potential legal problems. If you don’t have such protection, and if the legal action is successful, the personal representative – not the estate –pays the damages awarded in the lawsuit.
How to Find the Right Washington Probate Lawyer for You
Whether you’re a personal representative, a creditor, a beneficiary, heir or potential heir, you should consider hiring a Washington probate attorney to represent you. Meet with at least a few possible choices. Find a probate lawyer you’re comfortable with and one who makes you feel confident the matter will be handled in a timely and competent manner.
Educate yourself as best you can about probate; write down your questions; and schedule a consultation with a Washington probate lawyer. There are many ways to find an attorney who’s a good fit for you and what you want to accomplish.
- Have you used a probate attorney before? If so, and you’re satisfied, consider going back.
- Have you used a different type of lawyer? Estate planning attorneys usually take probate cases. If you’ve had estate planning done and are happy with your attorney, schedule a consultation for your current issue. If you’ve used an attorney for another reason, ask who he or she refers probate matters to or ask for recommendations.
- Have family members or friends used a probate attorney? Ask about their experiences and suggestions.
- Contact your local bar association or the Washington State Bar. Ask for a couple of names of probate attorneys and research their background. If you feel they might be someone you’d trust with managing the probate process, contact them to schedule a consultation.
- After you get names of some Washington probate lawyers, and before you decide who to retain, you can find out if the attorney has been professionally disciplined for misconduct through this form. Don’t make a blind hire. You should also ask for references and talk to the attorney. A probate attorney without client references is probably someone you don’t want to hire.
If You’re Looking for a Washington Probate Lawyer, Contact Dickson Frohlich
A simpler way to find a probate lawyer you can trust and who will provide excellent personal service is to reach out to Dickson Frohlich. Talk to our experienced probate attorneys about the types of estates our team has taken through probate. If you believe your estate has some possible legal issues, find out how we’ve handled similar ones for our clients.
If you’re serving as a personal representative or have a stake in handling an estate, our experienced probate attorneys can educate you about the process and represent your interests. How your estate matter will be probated could be complex and intimidating. Going it alone, given all the mistakes you could make and the issues that could arise, may not be a good idea. A free 15-minute phone consultation is available when you call us at 206-429-6931.