What is Probate?

Probate is the process used by the courts to validate, carry out and administer the provisions of a will and handle arising disputes on the estate of a deceased person. 

Guided by Washington’s probate laws, the estate administration process or probate could be expensive and lengthy.

Suppose you want your family to avoid probate and other legal complications when you die, and you need legal assistance in setting up a will or planning your estate in Tacoma, Washington. In that case, you can contact an experienced estate planning lawyer in Washington today.

In probate, the court decides the will’s validity, including the instrument the will is presented. Should the probate court rule that the will is valid, it will oversee and direct the distribution of properties as stipulated in the will. More often than not, it is already indicated in the will who will be executor, the one to manage and handle the distribution of properties, deal with debts, and other matters during the probate process.


Properties and Assets That Don’t Require Probate

As the probate process can have severe impacts financially and emotionally, most people prefer to avoid the probate process. Probate court proceedings aren’t always necessary, and some property automatically passes to a beneficiary without involving the probate proceeding, even with the absence of a will, such as:

  • Properties in joint ownership with right of survivorship
  • Properties under Community Property Agreements (CPAs)
  • Properties or assets that pass to another person under a contract where beneficiaries are already named, such as retirement accounts, payable-on-death accounts (PODs), life insurance payouts, and pension benefits
  • Revocable living trusts
  • For Washington, an estate worth $100,000 and below can avoid probate, and inheritors can claim the assets granted to them with a sworn statement or an affidavit.


Probate Process When There’s No Will

However, when someone dies intestate, meaning the decedent was unable to do an estate plan or prepare a will, and the exceptions provided above do not apply to the properties of the deceased, the estate enters into probate. The court assumes the responsibility for the distribution of property and undergoes the probate process. In this case, the probate court may designate an administrator to split the deceased person’s property. This individual will have the same role as an executor. Both executors and administrators are also more generally known as personal representatives. 

The designation will be through issuing a document called “Letter Testamentary” to an executor or “Letters of Administration” to an administrator. The published document is a legal and binding document that grants the personal representative’s power and authority to collect and manage the estate. The designation comes with remuneration as the personal representative is qualified to collect payment for the conduct of their roles and responsibilities.

The priority to be selected as the personal representative is the surviving spouse or registered domestic partner. How the administrator divides the properties will have to be approved by the probate court.

In some cases, the personal representative may petition the probate court to settle the estate without court supervision or “non-intervention.” The court may grant this request if the estate has more assets than debts and if:

  • The deceased person has left no will and no children/grandchildren from another relationship, the surviving spouse or registered domestic partner acts as the personal representative and that the estate consists entirely of community property; or
  • The deceased person has no debt to settle with the personal representative, and that court establishes that the non-intervention is in the best interests of beneficiaries and creditors.


Step by Step Probate Process

If and when probate is necessary, below is a quick summary of what needs to be done:


Filing for Probate

The probate process is initiated with the filing of a petition for probate.


Inventory of Assets and Liabilities

The personal representative conducts inventory on the total assets and estimated value of the estate. Probate assets include real property, vehicles, bank accounts, personal belongings under the deceased’s sole ownership, and life insurance proceeds without a named beneficiary.

Do note that in Washington, the inventory conducted by the administrator does not have to be filed in court unless otherwise requested by an interested person. Should the deceased individual have properties in another state, the administrator may be required to enter into a second probate proceeding in the respective state. This is called ancillary probate.


Notice to Creditors

In the State of Washington, personal representatives may or may not publish notices of the probate court proceedings in a local newspaper. 

All creditors will have four months to lodge their claims should notices be published and sent to known creditors or two years from the date of death should there be no publication or notification. Otherwise, the claims shall be forfeited in favor of the estate.


Tax and Debt Payments

As administrator of the estate, the personal representative pays all taxes, including income tax and outstanding debts.

All properties and assets that undergo the probate process are subject to estate tax and, possibly, inheritance tax. In the absence of a will, inheritance taxes apply to heirs under applicable intestacy laws.

Also, most of the personal representatives who get to inherit money from the estate choose not to collect payments for their role as administrator or executor because fees collected are also subject to income tax.

It is important to note that in addition to federal tax, the State of Washington slaps its own estate tax. Should there be less money in the estate than what is required to pay, the administrator must prioritize the claims as per state law. 


Distribution of Property and Estate Closure

The administrator settles the estate and distributes the properties and assets according to state intestacy laws or intestate succession after debts and taxes are paid. 

The personal representative may file closure of the case to the court after payment of all debts, filing of tax returns, and distribution of assets.



Should there be a dispute arising from the distribution of properties and assets, an appeal may be filed to the personal representative or the court by the disputing party. If and when the disputing party is unsatisfied with the appeal results, a lawsuit may be filed wherein the personal representative may be dismissed and replaced and even be held liable for any losses incurred by the estate due to their negligence.  


Hiring Legal Experts

The probate process could be confusing and could cause distress to a grieving family. At James A. Jones, Attorney at Law, we work with families in the Seattle-Tacoma metropolitan area in this estate administration process. Contact our estate planning law firm in Tacoma today!