It is devastating to lose a loved one. If someone finds themselves in the unenviable position of grieving someone recently deceased, they could also find themselves in the position of handling their estate plan. In some cases, families learn that they need to go through the probate process. This leaves people asking, what does a probate lawyer do? The knowledge and experience of probate lawyers could provide the legal answers you need to navigate the handling of your loved one's estate. Speaking with the compassionate and experienced attorneys at Baxter Legal Services at 425-686-0574 can help you understand if legal representation is right for you for your probate case.
What Is Probate?
Probate is a legal term that describes the process that occurs after someone dies. If the deceased has a Last Will and Testament (will), the probate process begins with verifying its validity and appointing an executor. The executor will manage the estate, satisfy outstanding debts, and distribute assets as per the terms outlined in the will. If the deceased does not have a will, the probate court will satisfy debts and distribute assets as outlined per the Washington Title 11RCW Probate and Trust Law. Probate often includes will validation, executive appointment, determining the estate's value, paying off outstanding debts, and distributing assets. Probate ends when all of the deceased's debts are satisfied, and the assets are distributed.
What Does a Probate Lawyer Do?
A probate attorney can also have the title of estate attorney. Probate lawyers use their understanding and knowledge of the law to assist people in preparing their end-of-life documents. This includes how their estate and assets get handled post-death. A probate lawyer steps in after the person dies to guide their estate through the probate process.
An estate attorney assists clients before death to prepare the necessary legal documents. This includes a trust, will, power of attorney, living will, and other relevant legal documents. Some law firms, such as Baxter Legal Services, can provide both estate planning and probate services.
Once a client hires a probate lawyer, they will prepare and file the required documents with the court. Then the lawyer will arrange for service to all of the required parties. Throughout the process, the lawyer will advise the client of the next possible steps and necessary court appearances. They may also advise the executor of the estate on proper handling of the estate.
When There Is a Will
If the deceased has a will, the probate lawyer can aid in confirming its legitimacy for their client. The lawyer can then advise on the next legal steps for wills that are not executed correctly, invalid, or found to be executed under duress. If the will is valid and enforceable, the lawyer can advise on legal matters relating to the estate's handling and fulfilling the terms of the will.
When There Is No Will
A lawyer's role in the probate process becomes more involved when the deceased does not have a will. The estate administrator will work with the lawyer to follow the Washington intestate laws. This can be a slightly more intensive process because the lawyer will identify and secure assets, determine debts and taxes owed, account management, and distribution of assets as per state law. The process can become more complicated because estate handling must follow the law and does not consider the deceased's or family member's wishes.
Benefits of Working with a Probate Lawyer
A probate lawyer can provide the advice of a specialist who regularly works with the probate court and knows Washington's probate laws. While it is not guaranteed, having legal guidance can help achieve a faster resolution. On a personal level, letting an attorney handle the administrative details creates more time for family and processing emotions. Some people may also find that there are fewer disputes among beneficiaries.
Do I Need a Lawyer for Probate?
While the role of an executor requires more common sense than knowledge of the law, an attorney could provide helpful legal guidance. Many executors can handle small estates with no unusual assets on their own. However, estates that are large, complicated, or have unique assets may benefit from the assistance of a lawyer. Other common situations that may benefit from a lawyer's guidance are when there is conflict or the deceased has more debts than assets. If someone is unsure of whether or not they need a lawyer, they should ask themselves these questions. The more questions that are answered with a yes, the more likely the executor does not require the assistance of a lawyer.
- Can I transfer the deceased's assets outside of probate?
- Does the estate qualify as a "small estate" in Washington?
- Are family members and intended beneficiaries getting along?
- Will Washington's probate process be simple for the estate?
- Are the estate's assets common?
- Is there enough money to pay the estate's debts?
As per RCW 11.62.010, a “small estate” is one that does not exceed $100,000. If you are concerned about the probate process, visiting with an experienced probate attorney can provide you with the answers you need.
How to Choose a Probate Lawyer
When choosing a probate attorney, it can help to arrange multiple consultations with several probate lawyers. This provides an opportunity to get a feel of the kind of attorney and ask some pertinent questions.
- How long have you practiced probate law?
- Is probate law your main practice focus?
- Do you have experience in the court overseeing any probate case?
- Can you give me an estimated timeline of my case from your experience?
- Does my case have similar elements to ones you have handled in the past?
- What is your fees?
Every case is different, therefore, while lawyers can handle similar cases and give estimates, they cannot guarantee an outcome. Additionally, no lawyer can guarantee the timeline for a case. The Washington Superior Court reported handling 14,822 probate cases filed statewide in 2020. Of those cases, the state average is 81.60% of cases closed in eight months. However, Douglas and Garfield counties closed 100% of cases in eight months, while Whitman county only closed 28.57% of cases in the same time period.
Consult a Probate Lawyer
Now you know the answer to the question, what does a probate lawyer do?, you can decide if consulting one is suitable for your situation. A probate lawyer may be able to provide the guidance you need to handle your loved one's estate properly. If your loved one's estate is unique, especially large, or complicated, then it could be beneficial to hire a probate lawyer to get your specific legal questions answered. Schedule a consultation with Baxter Legal Services at (425) 686-0574 to discuss your estate planning and probate needs.