Serving as the executor of an estate – called a personal representative in Washington state – can be a time-consuming and exacting job. Although Washington law doesn't mandate that estates must go through probate, the process may be unavoidable if the decedent left real property that requires transfer of title, or significant other assets that require transfer of ownership. Probate is the process that legally moves ownership of property from the decedent to living beneficiaries.
Probate begins when a personal representative submits the decedent's will to the court and applies for Letters of Administration, the court's authorization to act on the estate's behalf. Decedents typically name their chosen representatives in their wills, so this is normally a simple, straightforward procedure. When you accept your Letters, you take on a fiduciary responsibility to perform your job with integrity, honesty, and with the best interests of the estate's beneficiaries and the decedent in mind.
One of a personal representative's first duties after taking office involves determining exactly what assets the decedent owned. Washington law gives you three months to prepare a list, called an inventory, and submit it to the court. The inventory includes values, so you may have to have real estate and other significant assets appraised to determine their worth. Values are usually set as of the date the decedent died. You're also responsible for making sure the assets are safe and secure. Insurance policies should be kept current, and you should have all ownership documentation, as well as smaller valuables, in your possession.
Creditors, Debts and Expenses
After you determine what the decedent owned, you're obligated to figure out what he owed. His estate must pay all his known debts as part of the probate process, and this can sometimes involve liquidation of assets if the estate doesn't include sufficient cash. Washington law requires that personal representatives publish a notice to the decedent's creditors in a newspaper approved by the court, then file a copy of the notice with the court. Creditors have four months in which to file claims for payment. As personal representative, you must also pay the expenses of the estate's operation, such as the cost of the newspaper notice, appraisal fees, and court filing fees. The estate may also owe taxes. At a minimum, you'll have to file a return for income the decedent earned during his last year of life.
Under some circumstances, you might have reason to distribute some bequests early, either during the four-month creditor period or shortly thereafter. Unless the decedent gave you nonintervention powers in his will, you'll need court approval for this. Nonintervention powers allow you to probate the estate without the supervision of the court.
Normally, you would wait to close the estate until after you've paid all debts, taxes and expenses of administration. Assets that remain after payment of debts and expenses can then be distributed to the beneficiaries named in the decedent's will. You can close by asking the beneficiaries to sign waivers acknowledging that they received their bequests, but all of them must do so. Otherwise, you'll have to file two forms with the court, asking permission to make distribution. You must also send copies of the second form to all the decedent's beneficiaries and heirs. If no one objects, a Washington estate typically closes within a month after filing these documents with the court. You can then distribute the estate's assets.