How Probate Laws Work in Washington

When your loved one dies, it can be a sad and difficult time. Often, it is also stressful, complicated and confusing, as you find yourself thrown into the process of settling the estate. This process is called probate, and it’s something most people don’t think about until they’re faced with the death of a loved one. But when you are grieving the death of a loved one, the last thing you want to deal with is a lengthy, complicated and potentially costly probate.

However, with some simple planning, you can understand the probate process in Washington and be prepared. Take a few minutes to educate yourself about the particular probate law rules and procedures specific to Washington, as each state has its own laws regarding the probate process. These state rules, deadlines and requirements can vary widely, so be sure to focus on the particular rules pertinent to you as a resident of Washington.

Below we break down the key deadlines, facts and requirements for the probate process in Washington. 

What is Probate?

Probate is the legal process for ensuring that the wishes of a person who has died are honored, as stated in his or her will. Through probate, the deceased person’s estate is settled, which includes transferring property and assets to heirs and beneficiaries. It also involves paying any outstanding debts, such as loans or taxes, that may remain on the estate. But the most important purpose of probate is to honor the deceased person’s intentions for the estate’s property and assets. Importantly, all of these transfers and settlements must be done in compliance with the state probate laws of Washington.

Is Probate Required in Washington?

Yes. The settling of an estate by probate must be done according to state law in Washington. This applies whether the person died with a will, or under default state intestate rules when there is no existing will.

The majority of estates are settled under the terms of a written will. This document names property, estate assets, heirs and beneficiaries. However, if a person dies without a written will, the state law of Washington directs us how to distribute and settle the estate according to both inheritance laws and probate laws.

Probate can be formal or informal in Washington. The more lengthy, complicated and costly formal process will be required if any disputes arise among the estate’s beneficiaries, heirs, creditors, or other people with interests in the estate. There also may be a dispute about the meaning of written terms or instructions in the will. If these disputes occur, then probate must occur formally, under the supervision and direction of a Washington state court judge. Similarly, a judge must be involved in probate if the estate settlement involves the guardianship of a minor or incapacitated adult.

It’s important to note, however, that Washington does have a couple exceptions to the required probate process that can help save time, confusion and cost.

How do you Avoid Probate in Washington?

There are two main ways you can avoid formal probate in the state of Washington.

First, state law allows heirs of the estate to skip the probate process entirely when the estate qualifies as a “small” or simple estate. If the total value of the estate’s assets is $100,000 or less, then you may skip formal probate and settle the estate under a more simplified process, without court supervision. It’s important to note that this threshold value of $100,000 does not include any property interest that is left to the surviving spouse or domestic partner.

Under this simplified probate shortcut, any person inheriting from the estate must prepare a legal document called an affidavit, stating that he or she is entitled to certain assets or property held by the estate. The affidavit must be signed under oath and must state:

No less than 10 days before filing the affidavit, the beneficiary must also provide written notice to all other known heirs and beneficiaries of the estate. Once this has been accomplished, the affidavit can be submitted to the institution holding the estate assets (such as a bank), which will release the assets to the beneficiary.

A second simplified probate process is available in Washington for estates that meet certain eligibility requirements. Under this second simplified procedure, the executor of the estate—also called the “personal representative” in Washington—can distribute the estate’s assets to all heirs and beneficiaries without any supervision from the probate court.

This simplified process is called “settlement without court intervention,” and is available if:

It’s also possible to go forward under this simplified probate process is the court determines that it is in the best interests of the estate’s creditors and beneficiaries to do so, as long as the personal representative is not a creditor of the deceased person.

If this second simple probate method is available, then the personal representative controls the settling of the estate. This includes paying out all claims and distributing any assets and bequeathments. Once this has been completed, the personal representative files an accounting with the court along with an application to officially close the estate. The application must state:

Once all of these requirements have been met and included in the application, the probate of the estate will be officially closed. All of this can occur without any formal court supervision.

Can an Executor of an Estate in Washington Be Compensated?

Typically, anyone who has been named to be executor or personal representative of an estate may wonder whether they can be fairly compensated for settling an estate through probate. This is because the process can be complicated and require a significant amount of time and effort from the personal representative.

The answer is yes, in Washington a personal representative can be fairly compensated for the work of settling an estate in probate. This includes being compensated not only for time, but also for any costs and fees that may be incurred while working to settle the estate. 

How Much Does an Executor get paid in Washington?

The default payment rule is that either the will dictates the personal representative’s compensation, or, in the absence of written terms in the will, a fee that is “just and reasonable” as determined by the probate court.

In the first case, where the compensation is clearly stated in the will, the matter is straightforward, and the personal representative is compensated according to the will’s terms. If, however, no such terms exist, then it must be determined what exactly is “just and reasonable.” In making this decision, the court can consider factors such as the nature of the work and services rendered, the amount of time required to settle the estate, and the value of the estate’s assets.

If the compensation is stated in the will but the personal representative does not believe it is just and reasonable, then he or she may petition the court to override the terms of the will and adjust the compensation. This adjustment request must be submitted in writing to the court prior to the personal representative’s appointment or starting the work of settling the estate.

In many cases, the personal representative may wish to waive compensation altogether. This is common when the personal representative is the sole or a large heir of the estate.

How Long Does Probate Take in Washington?

The total time required for probate depends on several variables, including the size of the estate, the type of assets and their value, and of course whether any disputes arise between creditors or beneficiaries of the estate.

If the estate qualifies as a small estate, if there are is only one or very few beneficiaries, or if it is eligible for the simplified probate, then the entire process can take as little as a few months. There must only be sufficient time to notify creditors and heirs, file the necessary affidavits and paperwork, and distribute the assets of the estate.

However, if the estate is complicated, if there are disputes among creditors, or if any beneficiary or family member contests the terms of the will, then the process can take one year or even longer. It can also be quite costly, so the more simplified the probate procedure can be, the better for the personal representative and all parties involved.

Do all Estates Have to Go Through Probate in Washington?

No, not all estates must go through the formal probate process.

As detailed in the sections above, smaller estates with a total asset value of less than $100,000 can avoid the complicated formal probate process. Less complicated estates can also move forward under the simplified procedures called “settlement without court intervention,” as described above.

Additionally, probate court proceedings may be avoided in relation to particular assets of the estate. First, if there are any accounts labeled as “payable on death,” these assets can avoid formal probate. With this designation, the accounts—such as savings accounts and investment accounts—are paid to the named beneficiaries upon death.

Similarly, if assets are covered by a living trust document, then they can be passed to heirs without formal probate procedures. The living trust can cover almost any asset owned, from real property and vehicles, to investment accounts and bank accounts. The living trust operates similarly to a will and assigns the transfer of assets to particular heirs upon the person’s death. All of these transfers occur automatically at death, without any formal probate filings.

Another way of avoiding formal probate in Washington is by jointly owning property with another person in a joint tenancy. This type of property ownership is most common with real estate holdings, but it can also exist for vehicles, bank accounts and other valuable property. When assets are owned in a joint tenancy, the property automatically passes to the surviving owner(s) upon the death of one of the owners. This automatic transfer also applies to “community property” that is owned jointly between spouses or domestic partners. 

All of these methods are avenues for avoiding costly formal probate procedures in Washington. 

How Long do you Have to File Probate After Death in Washington?

There is no specific state law outlining the maximum time allowed for the probate process to occur. Simpler estates can be closed within a matter or weeks or months, while the probate for complicated estates can drag out over a year or more.

However, Washington state law does state that if there is a will, it must be filed with the Clerk’s Office of the Superior court within 40 days of the person’s death. Choosing the correct court is also important, as it must be the Superior Court of the county in which the person resided at the time of death.

Settling an Estate in Washington

Altogether, the probate process requires following specific states, all outlined in the Washington State Code. Once the personal representative identified—whether through naming in the will or appointment by the court—then he or she leads the probate process from start to finish.

This process includes:

If, after all this occurs, there are still remaining assets, then the personal representative must distribute them among the estate’s beneficiaries.

Probate Court in Washington

Probate is assigned to the Superior Court of the county where the deceased person lived at the time of his or her death. The Washington state court system has resources available for people who may be involved in the probate of an estate, whether as a family member, surviving spouse, creditor or beneficiary. There are also resources for “self help,” if you wish to handle probate without consulting an attorney.

Many of the Washington county court websites have further guidance for the probate process specific to your county. For example, King County has many forms and guidelines online, including an online library of probate resources found here: https://kcll.org/probate-resources/

Probate Code in Washington

The Revised Code of Washington is your best primary source for researching probate laws, deadlines and procedures. It will also help you understand your rights and responsibilities, whether as a surviving family member or if you find yourself acting as personal representative of an estate. Title 11 of the State Code is the applicable section for probate, which you can find here: https://app.leg.wa.gov/rcw/default.aspx?cite=11.

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