Probate is the process of settling the estate of a deceased person or “decedent”.
It’s not a complicated process, and in many ways Washington State has one of the more streamlined probate systems in the United States, but it still can be long and frustrating.
After losing a loved one, it’s often the last thing on someone’s mind and it can be difficult to sort through the decedent’s belongings to find all of the necessary information or paperwork required for a probate.
While probate is tiring, it’s also extremely important.
Every estate needs to be settled and distributed to the appropriate heirs as well as pay estate taxes (if owed).
Here are the five reasons as to how and why probates can take longer than may seem necessary.
Preparing and Filing Probate Documents
Filing with the court is the first step for the Personal Representative (the person settling the estate).
With the help of an attorney, the initial opening probate documents can be drafted and filed with the court. Once all the appropriate documents are filed and presented to a Judge, the Judge will sign an “Order,” basically saying that they approve the opening of the probate and awarding the Personal Representative with “Letters of Administration.”
These letters give the Personal Representative written proof that they are the executor of the estate. They can be taken to financial institutions and used to sign off on accounts and other acts for the estate.
Sounds easy enough, right? Then why does this take a long time?
Some counties require the probate attorney to appear in person with the order, which means making an appointment and going down to the court house.
In addition to that, once the order has been approved, the Letters of Administration can take several weeks before they arrive at the attorney’s office. This puts a hold on a lot of other steps in settling an estate because the Letters are required for the Personal Representative to take action, i.e. the Personal Representative can’t open an estate bank account or begin consolidating and distributing assets or paying taxes and creditors until the Letters are received.
Creditors Claims Must be Identified and Paid
Most people die with some form of debt. Whether it’s credit cards bills, phone bills, medical bills, etc., there are usually some unresolved bills.
To make sure all creditors get paid (not just the ones you know about) your probate attorney will file a “Notice to Creditors” with the court and mail notices to each known creditor.
A known creditor is a bill that is known about or should have been known about, like your phone bill.
An unknown creditor is a bill that isn’t unknown about or the Personal Representative has no way of knowing about.
The filing of the Notice to Creditors covers the unknown bills. Once each creditor type has been notified, the creditors have four months to file a claim with the court.
If they do not file a claim within four months, then their bill does not have to be paid by the estate.
If they do file a claim, then the Personal Representative will discuss with their attorney whether or not the claim will be paid or rejected.
Since the required time period for a creditor claim is four months, this phase of the estate settlement adds four months to the process.
Inventorying Assets and Determining Estate Tax Obligations
The Washington State estate tax exemption level is around 2 million dollars (it rises with inflation each year – this year it is $2,129,000).
This means if your entire estate (absolutely everything you own) is less than 2 million dollars you don’t have to pay any taxes. Anything more than that can and will be taxed at your death.
The same goes for the federal estate tax, though their exemption level is much higher at around 5.45 million dollars.
If the estate requires taxes to be paid, an accurate and complete inventory of everything that the decedent owned must be submitted to the state and/or federal level for review and payment.
This step requires someone who is extremely knowledgeable about state and federal taxes; it would be wise to have a tax attorney help you with this portion. Essentially every asset must be appraised and valued and those values must be attached to an inventory, created by the Personal Representative or attorney.
For bank accounts, each bank account must have a “date of death value” which can be requested by the Personal Representative or attorney.
While it doesn’t seem like this would take that much time, the more assets the decedent had, the longer it will take to collect all of the necessary documentation needed for the inventory.
Often times even though a date of death value statement has been requested, it can take days or weeks to receive, holding up production even more. You may even have to ask certain banks for the statement multiple times before they comply, or they may have to have their legal team review your request.
Once the inventory itself is sent to the state and/or federal level, it can take months to receive an approval or rejection. The estate is essentially on hold during this time, as the Personal Representative cannot distribute the remaining amount to the heirs before the taxes have been paid.
Distributing Assets and Consolidating the Estate
In general, at any part of the probate process, whether the Personal Representative is selling a piece of real estate or trying to distribute funds to heirs, it can take time to receive the necessary documentation or for assets to be moved or sold.
Banks may take a few days to process moving money to other accounts, real estate may stay on the market for weeks or months, and heir may not return their signed receipts.
Heirs have to sign and return ‘receipts’ stating that they received their share of the estate, which then have to be filed with the court. These have to be filed before the probate can be closed.
Often times, you will find that probates can take the longest simply because someone else or an institution has their own time frame that they have to work through.
Waiting on Everyone Else
In the case of heirs signing their receipts, this isn’t about waiting for a bank to transfer funds or real estate to sell, it’s simply waiting for someone to sign a piece of paper and send it back.
I have found that people will need to be reminded multiple times before they return required documentation; this draws the probate process out longer because documents can’t be filed until they are signed.
Simply put, sign and return things as quickly as possible, so that the attorney can cut down the waiting time.
Some of these steps can’t be helped, like the four months waiting for creditors, or waiting for the state or federal government to get back to you about taxes, the one thing that you can do to help is be as speedy as possible with your part. Even if it’s a few days, days add up and can help turn a year long process into nine months, or less.
Christopher Small knows how to help people get rich and live forever. He is more than just an estate planning lawyer. He wants to help you create legacy.
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Christopher is a Kirkland probate lawyer with CMS Law Firm LLC. He is a speaker, a blogger, a husband, a father, a golfer, and really good at helping people create the life of their dreams.