When loved ones pass away, they may leave behind property, debt and obligations, such as income or estate taxes. Often it falls to an adult child or friend to manage these final tasks. You may find yourself unable to complete some obligations - such as transferring title to real estate - unless you have a court order or other authority. Sometimes these final tasks can be done without court intervention or even the assistance of an attorney, but often attorneys can help.
Do You Need to File a Probate Case?
Traditionally, the way to wrap up final obligations and to transfer assets is called a probate case. In days of old, the word "probate" meant to "prove a Will." However probate also refers to the process of handling the estate of someone dies without a Will ("intestate").
People often are anxious about the probate process. This is because in some states, probate administration can be burdensome and expensive. However, Washington State has relatively streamlined probate laws. Court filing fees are fixed, and attorneys must submit detailed billing to the Court for approval. So, generally, you should not be concerned about probate if all assets are in the State of Washington.
Washington law also offers some good alternatives to probate, if your loved one's estate qualifies. These include a Small Estate Affidavit, joint tenancy, a Revocable Living Trust, or a Community Property Agreement. An attorney can tell you if one of the alternatives applies in your case.
There are good resources for Washington Probate on the Internet. You may want to read these sites for more information: Washington Probate Law and Washington Law Help. Note that I do not control the content of these sites and cannot ensure their accuracy. Also, some websites include sample Wills and other estate planning documents. I believe some people can manage probate cases without attorney support, but I do not believe people should try to complete a Will, Trust, or Community Property Agreement without legal advice.
Do You Need to Administer a Trust?
A Revocable Living Trust is a probate alternative which has been popular in recent decades, especially in states with historically higher probate costs. Most people in Washington State do not have Revocable Living Trusts, because our probate process is relatively simple. However, often people who own real property in other states choose a Revocable Living Trust instead of a Will. Some people prefer to use a Trust to avoid filing any personal information with a probate court.
If your loved one set up a Revocable Living Trust, you might not need to file a probate case. However, in some cases, probate might still be necessary. Also, a successor Trustee still must wrap up the final tasks, such as payment of debt and final taxes. An attorney can help you administer a trust.
Effect of Death on Power of Attorney or Guardianship
If your loved one granted you power of attorney, your authority ends at that person's death. You may not legally use a durable power of attorney to wrap up end-of-life matters.
If you were the court-appointed Guardian for your loved one, your authority ends at that person's death, with some small exceptions. Additionally, a Guardian has duties to notify the Court of a ward's death and to file a final accounting.
Help for Creditors
If a probate estate or a trust owes you money, you may be able to make a creditor's claim against the estate. The time to make such a claim is extremely limited, however. An attorney can help you present a claim.
If you are dealing with end-of-life issues, we'd love to help you if we can. We welcome your questions.