Probate is the legal process of settling the estate of someone who has died. In practice, this means that a person is appointed by the court (a “Personal Representative” or "PR") to step into the decedent’s shoes and wind up their affairs.
In most cases, probate isn't as bad as you've heard. While we’ve all heard probate "horror stories," the truth is that Washington and Idaho have some of the simplest probate systems in the country. Assuming your Will gives your PR all of the necessary powers, our system allows the PR to act with complete authority and without court intervention on nearly all matters, saving a significant amount of time and money. Furthermore, unlike some other states, attorneys fees are not based on a percentage of the value of the estate. This makes the probate procedure significantly less expensive than many other states, such as California, Florida, Hawaii, Montana, and Wyoming. Of course, there are those cases that include assets that are difficult to locate, family members that simply don’t trust each other, or heirs that contest the validity of the Will feeling that they were “cheated” out of their inheritance. In those cases, yes, probate can be a long and costly endeavor. However, that is a function of particular circumstances surrounding the family, and not an inefficiency of the probate process itself.
The length of time it takes to complete the probate process really depends on the assets and value of the estate, the work performed by the PR, the claims of creditors, and whether or not the Will is being contested. Certain timeframes may give you a better understanding of how long probate might last. For instance, creditors may submit claims for up to 4 months (if they are notified of the decedent’s death), and an estate tax return must be filed within 9 months of the decedent’s death (although this may be extended). Of course, if family members disagree, if the Will is contested, or the PR is not diligent in their duties, it takes a considerably longer time.
Who acts on behalf of the estate?
If you've been named as someone's Personal Representative, the first step is to hire a lawyer. Your lawyer is going to be your guide through this process, and you will need to feel at ease with them. The lawyer should be someone who is capable of handling the complex estate planning and tax issues that may arise during the course of settling the estate and can assist you with the implementation and funding of various trusts that need to be established. You are not required to hire the lawyer who drafted the Will and often times if the decedent had a poorly drafted document, a skilled lawyer may be able to mitigate its effects.
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 be of service.