Probate and Settling Estates

When settling an estate, the first question to determine is whether there are assets requiring action of a probate court in order to liquidate the assets or distribute them to the heirs.  There are many circumstances in which assets will pass by operation of law upon the death of an owner.  For example, assets held in a joint tenancy with the right of survivorship will pass to the surviving joint tenant(s).  If the deceased designated beneficiaries under a retirement plan or account, the proceeds of the retirement plan or account will pass to the beneficiaries so named.  If there is a community property agreement, community property will automatically transfer to the surviving spouse.  Estates consisting of personal property with the net value of less than $100,000 can be settled without a probate action under Chapter 11.62 of the Revised Code of Washington.  However, where the deceased own real property and other significant assets which will not pass by operation of law, a probate action must be commenced in order to settle the estate.

The probate proceeding provides a forum for heirs to raise any challenges to the validity of a will, the characterization of property as community or separate property and any other issues which touch upon the administration of the estate.  The probate proceeding also provides a process for assuring the orderly payment of creditor’s claims and taxes and determining the amount of any disputed creditor claim.  Notices are required to be given to heirs and creditors to allow them to raise any claims they may have.

Most probate proceedings do not involve disputes among heirs or disputed creditor claims and can be completed within a relatively short period.  The probate proceeding is commenced by a petition signed by an interested party who requests the appointment of personal representative to handle the settling of the estate.  If there is a will, the petition will also ask that the court admit the will to probate.  The personal representative appointed by the court is then responsible for inventorying and appraising the assets of the estate, giving notice to heirs and creditors, settling creditor’s claims, liquidating assets and distributing the estate in accordance with the will admitted to probate or, if there is no will, in accordance with the laws of intestate’s succession.

We regularly assist clients in determining whether a probate action is necessary and, if it is, commencing that action and seeking our client’s appointment as the personal representative.  We also represent heirs who are not appointed personal representative, but wish to assure that their interests are protected in the probate process.