When I turned 22, on my graduation day from the University of Washington, my mother told me she had end stage renal failure. For the layman, that means kidney failure. There is no cure. The options are dialysis or transplant. My mother wasn’t a transplant candidate, so dialysis was our only option. She was lucky, she made it on dialysis for 13 years before she passed away; it was the 13 hardest years of my life.
No one ever told me to seek out an estate planning lawyer, as my mother’s only assets were a mortgaged house and that was it. At the end, she didn’t even have a car, and her bank account held only the small amount she received from Social Security. Hardly enough, in my opinion, to need to hire a lawyer. How wrong I was.
I had Power of Attorney. I had a Will and Testament. I was an only child, and literally the last of my family to be alive. There was no one to contest the will, and so I figured I wouldn’t need a probate lawyer. Wrong again. My mother didn’t have life insurance either, so when I was informed that I’d need a lawyer by friends who had gone through this, I couldn’t afford a good one. I had to rely on a friend of a friend who did legal work on the side. She charged me a fraction of the cost, but you get what you pay for, and this process has taken ridiculously long. So, for anyone wondering, here are the things to know if you’re going through a probate in Washington State and you don’t have the funds for a top-notch probate attorney:
- You need a lawyer. Best to hire one before your loved one passes, because if it’s after, everything takes longer. An estate planning lawyer can help prepare you for what’s to come, draw up the will, and help you after the death.
- Ensure your loved one, if you’re going to be the executor of the estate, grants permission for you to have access to all financial, medical, and personal records. For example, in order for Medicare to tell me if my mother’s claims were all processed, I had to fill out a request for access, which I had to send off to some office in Nebraska and wait 60 working days for an answer, which tacked on two extra months to the process.
- Be prepared to drop $400-500 to post the estate in the paper. It’s worth it, as unknown claimants only have 120 days to submit claims, and if they don’t, and try later, they are out of luck!
- For known claimants, they have 30 days to submit their claims for them to be legit, but this doesn’t apply to banks. The bank holding the mortgage on my mother’s house was served in early October, and didn’t file their claim until January, and yet their claim is still valid. Sad, but true.
- Set up an Estate Bank account ASAP, especially if you’re both the executor and one of the beneficiaries. It’s the cleanest way to keep records to prove that you aren’t taking advantage of the estate. FYI, this is even necessary if you are the only beneficiary.
- A tax return must be filed for the deceased within 9 months of their death, so hiring an accountant to answer all questions relating to this is invaluable. Don’t wait until tax season to do this, hire one as soon after the death as you can to be prepared for tax season.
None of these tips were ever communicated to me by anyone, so when the time came for me to go through this process I was very much in the dark and having to find out all these things the hard way. As if losing a loved one isn’t hard enough, the probate process makes it that much harder if you don’t know these tips. My ignorance prevented me from being able to be proactive and prepared. Don’t make the same mistake I did. Following these tips and proactively being prepared will hopefully help you make a very tough process a little easier.