The term “probate” refers to the legal process of administering someone’s “estate” after they have passed away. (“Estate” simply means everything owned by the deceased person.) In Washington, a probate action is filed in superior court, usually in the County where the deceased person lived. Although it is possible to initiate a probate action without an attorney, there are strict rules and procedures under Washington law that must be followed. A non-attorney will be required to know and follow these rules just as strictly as an attorney. For this reason, it is usually best to hire an attorney to help guide a person through this process.
If a person left a Last Will and Testament, the original version of this document is filed with the probate court and the court “certifies” this document and admits it into probate (testate). The term probate is frequently used to refer to the entire process of “probating” an estate. In this usage, it refers to the entire process of gathering all available assets, paying any outstanding debts, taxes, administrative expenses and then finally distributing the remaining assets to those persons or entities entitled to receive them, either by direction of the Will or under the laws of the State of Washington if there was not a Will.
Initiating a probate action creates a legal entity known as “the Estate.” Typically, a person’s financial assets will be consolidated into an Estate bank account, which is used to pay existing debts before distribution to the appropriate heirs.
If an estate is solvent (assets are greater than debts) a court will typically bestow powers to the Personal Representative to administer and distribute assets of the estate without obtaining prior approval of the court (“non-intervention powers”). The probate court bestows legal authority to this person to act on behalf of the Estate in consolidating and distributing estate assets. This is necessary, for example, when the Estate transfers real property either by recording a deed transferring interest in the property to beneficiaries and/or by entering into a contract with a real estate agent to sell real property.
One purpose of the probate court is to resolve any disputes concerning the distribution of Estate assets. Generally, notice of initiating a probate action must be given to all potential heirs of the Estate, who are given the opportunity to intervene in this process if they feel Estate assets are being improperly handled and/or distributed. A probate court can also hear contests to the alleged validity of a Last Will and Testament.