Probate is the legal process that is often required after someone dies. Probate gives someone, usually the surviving spouse or other family member, authority to gather the deceased person’s assets, pay debts and taxes, and eventually transfer assets to the people who inherit them. Probate in Washington and Idaho typically takes 6 months to a year, depending on some choices the Personal Representative ("PR") makes. It can take much longer if there is a fight over the Will or unusual assets or debts that complicate matters.
In broad overview, the PR's job is to: (1) collect and inventory the deceased person's assets and keep them safe; (2) pay valid debts and taxes; and (3) distribute the remaining property as the Will (or if there's no Will, state law) directs.
The PR should keep careful records of how estate assets are handled and distributed. The PR should also inventory estate assets and estimate their value, but the inventory does not have to be filed with the court unless an interested person requests it. Usually, the PR opens a checking account for the estate, and uses it for amounts that come into the estate and to pay estate expenses.
The PR has authority over any assets that go through probate. Probate assets can include real estate, bank and brokerage accounts, and personal belongings (for example, vehicles, jewelry, home furnishings, and art). Life insurance proceeds that are payable to the estate (not a named beneficiary) are also probate assets.
If the deceased person owned real estate in another state, the PR may need to conduct a second probate proceeding in that state. That’s called an "ancillary probate."
In Washington and Idaho, PRs can choose whether or not to publish formal notice to creditors. If the PR does publish the notice, and also sends it to all known creditors, creditors will have just 4 months in which to make claims against the estate. If they don’t, their claims will be barred. Otherwise, creditors have 2 years from the date of death in which to bring claims. A PR who is concerned about claims coming in later usually chooses to publish notice.
If there’s not enough money in the estate to pay all debts, the PR must turn to state law, which prioritizes claims. The family allowance has the highest priority, followed by probate expenses, funeral costs, and taxes. It’s also the PR's responsibility to file final income tax returns for the deceased person. These returns are generally due by April 15 of the year following the year of death. Income tax returns may also be required for the estate itself. A federal estate tax return will be required only if the taxable estate is very large—for deaths in 2016, the limit is $5.45 million. More than 99.7% of all estates do not owe federal estate tax.
The PR can distribute estate assets to beneficiaries only after debts and taxes are paid. The PR follows the instructions in the Will, or if there is no Will, turns to state “intestate succession” law to determine who inherits. A PR who has paid all debts, filed the required tax returns, and distributed all the estate assets formally requests the court to close the probate case. The process is simple if the personal representative gets all the heirs and beneficiaries to sign a Receipt and Waiver document. If they don’t, the personal representative will have more notices to give and documents to file.
If you have questions about the probate process in Washington or Idaho, give us a call at 253.858.5434 to see how we can help.