Note the “Washington State” in the title. Although this process is likely very similar in other states, each state has its own rules. Make sure you know the rules in your state before you get started.
Either via some tragedy or the normal course of life, you are here right now because you are dealing with someone you know going through the probate process.
I often find when it comes to the things I don’t know a lot about, that the lack of knowledge is actually what makes me more nervous than the thing itself. Once I learn a little bit about what’s going on I feel much more at ease.
That’s the point of this article. If you are going through the process you’ve already got a lot going on. The last thing you need to worry about is the step-by-step of probate. And you won’t have to, because I’m going to break it down for you right here.
Step 1: Open probate
Opening probate is really pretty simple. You prepare what’s called a petition (which is just a document telling the court what you want to do) and file it with the court. This petition is going to ask the court to do several things:
- Find that the will is the last known will of the person that died; and
- Find that the will was validly signed and witnessed;
This petition is accompanied by an affidavit from whomever is the personal representative of the estate saying that they are the personal representative and that they are willing to serve. When the court gets the petition they will look at it and, assuming they approve of the will (they find that it is valid), they will do a couple of things:
- Issue an order admitting the will to probate;
- Issue an order appointing the personal representative of the estate; and
- Issue “letters testamentary” to the personal representative of the estate (this gives the personal representative authority to act on behalf of the estate).
In the event the person died without a will, the court will appoint a personal representative and do the same things as spelled out above.
Step 2: Notify all interested parties of the appointment of the personal representative.
The person that is appointed has the duty to reach out to everyone named in the will and let them know they are in charge of the estate. They are also required to let any heirs know about the process if they are not named in the will. The specific notice is a form you send out that any estate planning attorney will have.
Step 3: Notify the Department of Social and Health Services
Child support payments follow you around even if you die. The personal representative has to notify DSHS about the death so they can confirm no unpaid child support obligations exist (if they do they get paid first).
AND, by the way, this confirmation doesn’t just go to the person that died. DSHS will also check in on their heirs. That means if you’ve got money coming to you and you owe child support, it’s likely never going to reach your bank account.
Step 4: Gather assets and information
This is when the investigative work begins. The estate can’t be distributed if the person in charge doesn’t know where everything is.
In this phase a review of the decedent’s assets and relevant information occurs. The information to be gathered includes paperwork related to bank accounts, brokerage accounts, stock certificates, bonds, real estate deeds, and insurance policies.
You will need to figure out if they had any safe deposit boxes. You will need to get life insurance claim forms, apply for Social Security death benefits, employer pensions, VA pensions, and inventory cars, furniture, jewelry, and other possessions.
Step 5: Prepare an inventory and appraisement
Once you’ve gathered all of the possessions you’ll have to create an inventory: a line item sheet listing the thing and what the believed value of the thing is. In some cases you’ll have to request a formal appraisal of an item. This is a must-have item as beneficiaries are entitled to take a look if they want and it’s going to make distributing the property so much easier.
Step 6: Determine debts
Most people die owing money to someone. To figure this out you’ll have to review financial records. You’ll also have to gather all of the bills and pay those that are due and reasonable.
Step 7: Notify creditors
When you die your debts continue to be in force. The next thing that happens is sending out a notice (again a form any estate planning attorney will have) to all known creditors.
You don’t have to know about them for their balances owed to be valid, though. In Washington State creditors have a year to come forward and ask for their money, UNLESS you publish notice of the death in a local newspaper and allow it to run for three consecutive weeks. If you do that the claim period is reduced to four months.
Step 8: Manage estate assets during administration
There will be a period of at least 4 months when all of these assets will need to be managed. This can include setting up bookkeeping records, opening a checking account, collecting dividends and interest, paying bills, filing tax returns, collecting receipts, maintaining insurance on assets, and supervising a business interest.
Step 9: Distribute assets to beneficiaries
After the creditors have been paid and their time to file a claim has passed, the assets are finally distributed to the beneficiaries, if there is anything left. When assets are distributed, each beneficiary signs a receipt confirming full distribution of their share and waiving all future notices.
Step 10: Close the estate
Once all assets are distributed, the estate is closed. The representative will sign a declaration summarizing what they did. This declaration and all the receipts get filed with the court. After 30 days, if no one objects to everything, the estate is closed and the personal representative is discharged from their duties.
That’s it. Pretty simple when you break it down into steps.
P.S. Do you have kids? Have you completed guardianship paperwork? Have you done it correctly? Click here to find out what happens if you don’t do anything: Are you okay with a judge choosing the guardians of your children?
P.P.S. Do you own a business? Do you have a plan so the business, and your family, can survive if something happens to you? If not, click here to learn how simple it is to protect your business and your family from tragedy: 5 Ways to Protect Your Business from Catastrophic Failure.
P.P.S. Do you have no kids and think you don’t need an estate plan? Single and think a will is only for married couples. You couldn’t be more wrong. Click here to learn more: 5 reasons estate planning is a must have even if you don’t have kids.
Christopher Small is a Kirkland estate planning attorney who helps people get rich and live forever. He is also the owner of CMS Law Firm LLC.