Understanding How a Wills Lawyer in Washington State Can Help You
Estate planning and help from a wills lawyer in Washington State involves much more than just formalizing a statement of how one’s property and belongings will be distributed after death. It’s a key step in making sure those left behind will be taken care of correctly as well as preventing big, lasting mistakes from occurring. Not having a well-designed estate plan and will in place ends up leaving one’s life work to the whim of the probate court, which can produce a number of headaches for one’s family for years to come. A wills lawyer in Washington State can change all of that for the better.
Working with a Wills Attorney, and Estate Planning
How Probate and Estate Planning Play a Role
The normal legal process for deciding and finalizing how someone’s belongings are distributed after they have passed is known as probate. Unlike Hollywood which likes to portray mourning folks in dark suits, sitting around the desk of a wills attorney reading a last testament of the deceased, the reality is far more bureaucratic and procedural. In fact, it can be downright risky for those unfamiliar with how powerful a probate proceeding can be in terms of moving assets away from a family and to entirely unknown strangers savvy enough to take advantage of them.
Interestingly, however, probate is not required in Washington State in every situation where someone has passed. Unlike other states, where a probate proceeding is a legal requirement in every instance, residents of Washington have a choice of whether to file or not.
Our Wills Lawyer Explains How Probate Works
Probate is generally used for transferring assets of value. This could include bank accounts, valuable personal property, real estate property and debts or tax responsibilities. The latter is probably the least welcome, but it is technically possible and is often used so that the party involved can also actually get access to an asset of value free and clear of any liens after the obligations are paid off.
Probate is also used as a legal protection. Because it provides the supervision of the court in the distribution of the assets from a deceased’s estate, the process and disposition become a legal action. That makes it much harder for someone as a third party to challenge the same distribution later on or argue that the asset really belonged to them instead. So, there’s a significant benefit to probate as well.
What If There is No Will?
Situations That Do Require Probate
Not every passing is probate-free. In some instances the procedure is required. Common situations include real property (i.e., land) owned entirely in the name of the deceased person and no one else. Another trigger situation would be where there is personal property involved, again also in just the name of the party that has passed and no other’s. There can also be extenuating circumstances. These often happen where the estate itself simply doesn’t have enough value to address the financial obligations pending that were owed by the person who has passed, or the there is no will whatsoever spelling out who should be a beneficiary of the estate, especially when there is a conflict between parties.
Our Washington Wills Attorney Explains the Final Steps of Probate
To move the case out of probate and finalize the estate entirely, it needs to be in a clear status. That means all debts and taxes that apply to the estate have been paid and resolved, and everything that was to be distributed to a beneficiary has been transferred. This includes quite a bit of documentation affirming that all the above has happened, as well as legal noticing to ensure that no other affected parties did not have a chance to weigh in. When all is said and done, then the executor of the estate can file to formally close the probate proceeding and the court affirms it as complete. Otherwise, the estate stays in probate until the matters are resolved.
The Value of a Wills Lawyer in Washington State
Given all the above, leaving an estate without a will just doesn’t make any sense. Estate planning is really about how you are taking care of those you leave behind. Helping those you care about avoid the legal headaches that can otherwise occur makes as much as good sense as having an emergency savings account or getting an education for a better future. It’s just the smart thing to do.
The technical requirements of a legal, acceptable will in the State of Washington are:
- The person making out the will (testator) defines in writing how his or her assets should be distributed.
- The will is signed and executed in front of two identified adult witnesses.
- An executor is identified in writing in the will as the legal party charged with executing the will once the testator has passed away.
- The will is executed and completed with witnesses in front of a licensed public notary.
- After the testator’s death, the will is filed with the county court where he or she died.
Again, estates without a will, or “intestate,” automatically trigger probate. However, with a legal and valid will in place, the choice to go into probate proceedings becomes discretionary in many cases. Generally, where more than $100,000 in assets are individually owned, as discussed above, probate will be needed, but in many cases assets are jointly owned, as in the case of a marriage. In these situations, probate technically could be avoided as the surviving spouse takes over based on the will already in place and executing as such.
How A Will Affects Shared Assets
Since a will affecting shared assets can’t be executed without the sharing spouse’s approval, such a will would already be known and the surviving spouse would likely be fully aware of what to expect. He or she may even be the executor as well. That said, probate may still be a wiser path, especially if one expects family conflicts or the intrusion of a third party or there are significant debts and taxes that need to be settled first. A wills attorney can help anticipate these situations with clarity. For help with drafting a will that captures all your wishes and that can make distribution of assets clear upon your passing, contact our Washington wills lawyers at 206-429-6931.
The Ramifications of No Will in Washington State
It is not uncommon for people to pass away without a will. In many cases they didn’t get to it, there wasn’t enough time, they were too busy, it was too complicated, or they didn’t think it was necessary. Whatever the reason, the lack of a will when someone passes complicates any last wishes of assets being transferred to intended beneficiaries. It can even complicate gifts that were given in the year prior to a person’s death, in some instances.
When a Person Dies without a Will, They Die “Intestate”
Washington State law identifies deaths without a will as being “intestate,” a legal term identifying the lack of a legal will’s being in place. The court then follows a default alternative approach which starts with known and recognized succession. That path starts with the spouse; then biological children; then siblings, parents, grandparents; and finally any other relatives or connections. However, the court is not bound to hand over the entire intestate asset portfolio in that order automatically. Instead, the court will assign or appoint an executor of its choosing.
Where community property exists, Washington’s laws protect the rights of the surviving spouse and legal title to shared property. That doesn’t apply, however, when the deceased might have received property through a prior inheritance or as a gift, otherwise known as separate property. Where the couple was unmarried, all the property involved is considered separate automatically. Separate property can include land as well as personal belongings and accounts, and ownership is defined by the names on the legal title of the property.
How a Wills Lawyer Can Help
With the lack of a will and help from a wills lawyer in Washington State, the surviving spouse automatically has title to 50 percent of the community property and all of the separate property left in the estate. The remaining half of the community property first goes to legal children, split evenly. If there are no children, then the surviving spouse gets three-fourths of the assets and one-fourth goes to the parents of the deceased, if they are alive. The same would apply if there are no children, and the parents are deceased, and only a sibling of the deceased survives.
Regarding the child’s share, legal biological and legally adopted children have the strongest argument. Stepchildren, foster children and unofficial adopted children have a very weak claim, if any, and only have the court’s equity to fall back on, i.e., the court decides to give them a share out of fairness. This is rare. Also, children who were given up for legal adoption have no legal right to an intestate property distribution, even if they are biological, if it happened in marriage. Children born outside a marriage, however, have a strong claim by proven genetic relationship (paternity).
Our Wills Attorney Explains Exceptions
Miscellaneous Exceptions to a Will
Not every asset owned automatically becomes part of a will prepared by a wills attorney. Certain assets already have their beneficiary list and won’t be part of a will unless the estate is identified as the beneficiary instead of a person, which can also be confirmed by a lawyer for wills. These include:
- Retirement deferral accounts (i.e., 401k and IRAs)
- Life insurance policies
- Living trusts
- Bank accounts with a next-of-kin payout defined
- Investment accounts with a next-of-kin payout defined
- Joint tenancy land property.
Criminal Law Restrictions to Wills
Washington State includes laws that restrict anyone convicted of murder from benefiting as a beneficiary to a will when the murder victim was the will’s testator. This makes it impossible for a beneficiary to kill someone to “speed up” their death and get away with an early distribution. However, Washington also has additional laws that void a person’s inheritance from an elderly testator if it is proven that the person committed elder financial abuse on the testator. While not directly addressing an intestate situation, it is unlikely that a court would distribute an estate in probate to a known murderer of the deceased or a convicted abuser.
Why Talking to a Wills Lawyer in Washington Is Your Best Decision
In short, a will makes a lot of sense to have in place in Washington, and a wills attorney can help take care of the technical aspects to make it happen. It is possible to write one’s own will, but a Washington wills attorney can catch nuances the average person may miss with given estate details and nuances. To find out more about how to hire a wills lawyer in Washington State, contact our offices at Dickson Frohlich at 206-429-6931 for more information.