Probate is a legal process that validates the will of a deceased person. It makes an inventory of assets, settles debts and distributes property under court supervision. Understanding how this process works in Washington state can help you navigate through potential challenges that can be time-consuming, stressful and expensive. Fortunately, you can use different strategies to pass down assets to your beneficiaries in a streamlined and private way. Here’s what you need to know to avoid probate in Washington.
A financial advisor can help you create an estate plan to help you avoid probate.
What Is Probate?
Probate is the legal process through which an executor settles and distributes a deceased person’s estate under the supervision of a local court. The purpose of probate is to ensure that the deceased person’s assets are distributed per their will (if one exists) or according to state law if there is no will.
Here’s a general overview of the probate process broken into six common steps:
- Filing a petition. The process usually begins with the executor filing a petition in the probate court. This petition is typically submitted by the person named as the executor in the deceased person’s will or by a close relative if there is no will. The petition provides information about the deceased person, their assets, and their heirs or beneficiaries.
- Notification of heirs and creditors. Next, the probate court notifies all interested parties, including heirs, beneficiaries, and creditors. The notification allows them to contest the will or make claims against the estate.
- Inventory and appraisal. The executor (or personal representative) is responsible for preparing an inventory of the deceased person’s assets, including their real estate, bank accounts, investments, personal belongings, and other valuables. In some cases, the executor will hire an independent appraiser to determine the value of certain assets.
- Paying debts and taxes. The estate is responsible for paying any outstanding debts, including mortgages, loans, and other liabilities. Additionally, any applicable estate taxes must be settled. This may involve selling assets if there is not enough cash in the estate to cover these expenses.
- Distribution of assets. After debts, taxes, and administrative expenses are paid, the remaining assets are distributed to the heirs or beneficiaries as specified in the will or according to state law if there is no will. The probate judge oversees this distribution to ensure it is done correctly.
- Final accounting and closing of the estate. The executor provides a final accounting to the court, detailing all financial transactions related to the estate. Once the court approves the accounting and is satisfied that the executor has handled all matters properly, it will issue an order to close the estate.
Why Should You Avoid Probate?
Here are five common reasons why you may want to avoid probate:
- Reduce costs. Probate proceedings often involve legal fees, which can be substantial, especially if the estate is complex or contested. The estate’s assets pay these fees, reducing the amount ultimately distributed to heirs or beneficiaries. For example, there are fees for filing documents in court, getting professional appraisals of assets, attorney fees, and executor payments.
- Expedite asset distribution. Probate can become drawn out and expensive in Washington because it usually takes at least six months to resolve. During this time, beneficiaries may face financial difficulties, especially if they were dependent on the deceased for support. On the other hand, assets that pass outside of probate (such as through trusts or joint ownership) can be distributed more quickly, providing beneficiaries with more immediate access to needed resources.
- Rule out disputes. Probate proceedings can sometimes lead to disputes among heirs or beneficiaries regarding the will’s validity or who should receive which assets. When a will is subject to probate, interested parties can contest it, leading to costly legal battles that can delay the distribution of assets.
- Keep matters private. Probate proceedings in Washington state become part of the public record. Therefore, anyone can access and review the documents filed in probate court, including details about the deceased person’s assets, debts, and beneficiaries. Avoiding probate allows for a more discreet distribution of assets, as the details of trusts, life insurance policies, and bank account transfers are unavailable to the public.
- Control asset distribution. Careful estate planning can ensure that your legacy aligns with your values and priorities. It allows you to make deliberate choices about how your wealth will benefit your loved ones, organizations, and causes that matter to you after you’re gone. On the other hand, with probate, your will become subject to the interpretation of the judges, executors, and attorneys involved in your case. These parties can muddy the waters of your original intentions, especially if disputes develop.
How to Avoid Probate in Washington State
Here are six common estate planning techniques that could allow you to sidestep probate in Washington:
- Revocable living trusts. A revocable living trust is a legal instrument that can hold your assets while giving you control of your wealth. While you are alive, you’re the trustee and retain the power to decide how to use your assets. Trusts aren’t subject to probate. Instead, you also appoint a successor trustee when you first create the trust. This person takes over when you pass away and allocates your assets according to your wishes. In addition, you can modify the trust’s terms throughout your life to adjust for life changes (such as a divorce, new marriage, or additional grandchildren).
- Lower estate value. Estates in Washington are exempt from probate if they are worth $100,000 or less. As a result, leaving an estate under the value threshold means it won’t go through probate. You can lower your estate’s value by gifting money to your beneficiaries while you’re alive. Specifically, you can give $17,000 to as many beneficiaries as you want without incurring extra taxes in 2023. So, if you have ten beneficiaries, you can give a total of $170,000 ($17,000 to each beneficiary) to reduce your estate.
- Joint ownership. Washington law allows two or more people to own specific types of assets together, such as real estate, bank accounts, and vehicles. Joint ownership gives rights of survivorship to the other owner(s) when one party dies. Therefore, single parent living with their adult child could pass their house to them upon death through a joint ownership.
- Community property agreements. A community property agreement means that when a person dies, their assets go to another person. Community property can apply to real estate, earnings, pensions, insurance policies, and investments. This tool is not available to unmarried couples. In addition, community property agreements override other aspects of an estate plan, which can complicate matters involving numerous beneficiaries.
- Transfer-on-death (TOD) deeds. A transfer-on-death or TOD deed allows you to designate a beneficiary who will inherit your real estate upon death. The property doesn’t go through probate; it automatically transfers to the named beneficiary. how the ownership of a piece of real estate will change when the current owner dies. This way, you can ensure the intended beneficiary receives the property after you’re gone.
- Accounts with beneficiaries. Some accounts have beneficiary designations and don’t need probate for distribution. For example, 401(k)s and life insurance policies list beneficiaries who will receive the wealth in your account/policy when you pass away.
Avoiding probate can help you reduce costs and speed up asset distribution. Additionally, it can keep details about the estate private. Ultimately, careful estate planning could help you to maintain greater control over the distribution of your assets and ensure that your legacy aligns with your values and priorities.
Tips for Avoiding Probate in Washington State
- A financial advisor can help you create an estate plan to avoid probate. If you don’t have a financial advisor yet, finding one doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to three vetted financial advisors who serve your area, and you can have a free introductory call with your advisor matches to decide which one you feel is right for you. If you’re ready to find an advisor who can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.
- While commonalities exist between states, your location determines how specific laws impact your estate plan. Becoming well-versed in Washington inheritance laws can help ensure the maximum amount goes to your beneficiaries without wasting any time.
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