If you recently experienced the death of a friend or a family member, what happens next?

The person who passed away has left behind an “estate.” The estate must be settled through a legal process. This is usually done through probate or through other legal procedures.

What is probate?

In Washington State, probate is the name of a court process that heirs can go through to sort out and resolve an estate’s legal issues. Probate might involve presenting the will to the court, transferring ownership of a deceased person’s property to heirs and beneficiaries, settling the person’s debts, and more.

However, not every deceased person’s estate in Washington must go through probate. Depending on the estate’s circumstances, an alternative procedure might be more appropriate. (The word “probate” is sometimes also used informally to refer to these alternative legal procedures.)

What are the alternatives to probate?

Some of these alternative procedures are:

  • intestacy, the procedure that can replace probate if somebody dies without a will;
  • Washington’s small estates procedure, used to settle estates valued at less than $100,000; and
  • community property agreements, which may make probate unnecessary when the first spouse passes away.

Who is responsible for doing this?

Regardless of the whether an estate goes through probate or an alternative procedure, someone must start the process to settle the estate. This person could be a surviving spouse, a family member, or a person appointed by the court.

What does this person do?

The person in this role has several responsibilities. He or she usually has to sort out and make sense of the estate’s paperwork, inventory the estate’s assets, appear at court hearings, draft and file legal paperwork, give proper notice to heirs, beneficiaries, and creditors, and more.

How long does this take?

The time line for settling an estate depends on the procedure followed and will vary depending on whether or not disputes or other issues arise along the way. The process can range from several months to a year or more.

How much does it cost?

If you want to settle an estate on your own, the cost will be the time and effort that you have to put into it, plus expenses like printing, postage, and filing fees. (The filing fee to begin probate is likely to be $240 or more). If you hire an attorney, he or she will typically bill an hourly rate, but keep in mind that you usually can be reimbursed by the estate for an attorney’s fees and similar expenses.

What is the attorney’s role?

The attorney provides advice on the pros and cons of the various probate and alternative procedures, and guidance on the relevant laws, to help you choose which procedure is right. The attorney identifies the documents that are needed, drafts and files the required paperwork, and explains what must be done each step of the way. The attorney also appears in court on your behalf. In short, the attorney does much of the heavy lifting.