You can't take it with you. That's what they say. But a lawyer experienced in probate matters can help surviving family members settle your debts and distribute your assets after you're gone, with or without a Will. Generally speaking, probate lawyers help the Personal Representative ("PR") of the estate manage the probate process. They also may help with estate planning, such as the drafting of Wills or Trusts; advise on powers of attorney; or even serve as a PR.
Of course, the process will likely go smoother when the decedent has left a Will prior to his or her death. If an individual dies with a Will, a lawyer may be hired to advise parties such as the PR or a beneficiary on various legal matters. For instance, a lawyer may review the Will to ensure it wasn't signed or written under duress (or against the best interests of the individual). Elderly people with dementia, for example, may be vulnerable to undue influence by individuals who want a cut of the estate.
There are numerous reasons that Wills may be challenged, although most Wills go through probate without a problem. Additionally, a lawyer may be responsible for performing any of the following tasks when advising a PR:
* Collecting and managing life insurance proceeds;
* Getting the decedent's property appraised;
* Finding and securing all of the decedent's assets;
* Advising on how to pay the decedent's bills and settle debts;
* Preparing/filing documents as required by the court;
* Managing the estate's checkbook; and
* Determining whether any estate taxes are owed.
If you die without having written and signed a Will, you are said to have died "intestate." When this happens, your estate is distributed according to the intestacy laws of the state where the property is, regardless of your wishes. For instance, the surviving spouse receives all of your intestate property under many states' intestate laws. However, intestacy laws vary widely from state to state.
In these situations, a lawyer may be hired to assist the PR and the assets will be distributed according to state law. A lawyer may help with some of the tasks listed above but is bound by state intestacy laws, regardless of the decedent's wishes or the family members' needs.
A relative who wants to be the estate's PR must first secure what are called "renunciations" or "declinations" from the decedent's other relatives. A renunciation or declination is a legal statement renouncing one's right or declining to administer the estate. A lawyer can help secure and file these statements with the court, and then assist the PR with the probate process (managing the estate checkbook, determining estate taxes, securing assets, etc.).
If you have been named Executor or Personal Representative of someone's estate and need legal advice about your duties and responsibilities, give us a call at 253.858.5434. We represent clients throughout Washington and Idaho and are available to meet in person, by phone, or via Skype or FaceTime.