Definition: Probate

Probate is the legal process that occurs after the death of the decedent for the purpose of settling his or her estate when there are probate assets to be administered. The process consists of taking an inventory of all of the estate’s assets, identifying and providing notice to all of the estate’s heirs and beneficiaries, providing notice to all of the estate’s creditors, paying or contesting any claims from creditors, managing any income the estate receives before it is settled, paying the estate’s taxes, distributing the estate’s probate assets to the appropriate beneficiaries, and any other necessary tasks.

The personal representative of the estate (typically named in a will or appointed by the court if the decedent died intestate) is responsible for initiating, managing, and completing the probate process. First, he or she will initiate probate by filing a petition (and the decedent’s will, if applicable) with the Superior Court1.

Once the appointment of the personal representative is approved and the decedent’s will (if any) is determined to be valid, the personal representative must mail notice of the appointment to the estate’s heirs and beneficiaries within 20 days and file an affidavit with the court that affirms this. The personal representative will also usually file a notice to creditors with the court, publish the notice to creditors, and provide actual notice to creditors who are known or reasonably ascertainable. Creditors have a specific window of time in which to bring claims against the estate — four months from the date of publication of notice to creditors, or thirty days from receipt of actual notice to a creditor, whichever is later. If the personal representative fails to give notice, then any creditors will have twenty-four months to bring claims against the estate.

The personal representative must also open a bank account for the estate, obtain a tax identification number, file and pay taxes, and take an inventory of all of the assets. If the estate owns property outside the State of Washington, the personal representative must also initiate probate in the jurisdiction where the property is located. This is sometimes known as “ancillary probate.”

Probate is closed once the creditor claim period has passed, the personal representative has completed all of the duties listed above, resolved any other issues, and obtained court approval.

In some circumstances, an estate need not go through probate, for example, very small estates2 or estates which consist solely of nonprobate assets.

  1. This can be done at the Superior Court in any county in Washington, but typically occurs in the county that the decedent was a resident of at death. RCW 11.96A.050(4)
  2. See RCW Chapter 11.62 .