Whenever someone dies in Washington, their personal representative must settle their estate. In many cases, this means going through the probate process.

The idea of having to go through a legal proceeding can feel daunting, particularly during a time of grief. Thankfully, the probate process is not nearly as difficult as most people imagine.

The role of the personal representative

The person named as executor in the deceased person’s will is responsible for starting probate. If there is no will, or if the named executor(s) is unable or unwilling to serve, the court will appoint an administrator. If the deceased person left a surviving spouse or domestic partner, that person will be given first priority to be the administrator. In probate, the executor or administrator is called a “personal representative.”

The personal representative’s job is to protect the deceased person’s assets, distribute them according to the will (or if there is no will, according to state law), and to pay any debts or taxes owed. He or she is allowed to collect a reasonable fee from the estate in exchange for this work.

When probate is necessary

Probate is not always required. It is possible for small, uncomplicated estates to be settled by affidavit instead. However, probate may be required or preferable in many situations, including the following:

  • When the deceased person owned assets in his or her name alone
  • When the deceased person owned real property
  • When debts must be paid
  • When taxes are owed
  • When it is possible that conflict will arise

Assets with a named beneficiary will likely not have to go through probate nor will assets held in a revocable living trust.

Why a lawyer is beneficial

If you are the personal representative of your loved one’s estate, your first step should be to enlist the help of an experienced probate attorney. Doing so will make your job much easier. Your lawyer can help you with many important tasks including:

  • Filing the correct documents with the court
  • Locating assets and heirs
  • Keeping track of receipts, records and other important documents
  • Managing the deceased person’s assets
  • Paying taxes and debts
  • Distributing property to heirs
  • Managing any conflict that arises
  • Closing the estate once probate is complete

As personal representative, you are free to choose your own attorney. You are not required to hire the same person who drafted the will. What is important is that you choose someone with whom you feel comfortable and can maintain a good working relationship.