Avoiding Probate in Washington State

Written by guest writer: Shaheer Hashmi

Probate is a legal process that validates a will, settles debts, and distributes assets to beneficiaries after an individual’s passing. Effective estate planning strategies are available to help individuals avoid the court probate process and ensure a smooth transfer of assets to their loved ones. This article will explore three essential methods for avoiding probate in Washington State: Deeds of Trust, Beneficiary Designations, and Living Trusts.

  1. Deeds of Trust

Deeds of Trust, also known as Transfer on Death (TOD) deeds, offer an efficient way to pass real property to designated beneficiaries without going through probate. In Washington State, property owners can use TOD deeds to name specific beneficiaries who will inherit the property upon the owner’s death. Here’s how it works:

a. Consult an Attorney: To create a valid TOD deed, it is essential to seek advice from an experienced Washington State trusts and estates attorney who can guide you through the process and ensure compliance with state laws.

b. Execute the Deed: Once the TOD deed is drafted, sign and record it with the county recorder’s office where the property is located. This action effectively transfers the property to the designated beneficiary, who will take ownership automatically upon your passing.

c. Retain Control: While alive, you maintain complete control and ownership of the property, including the right to sell, rent, or modify it as you see fit.

  1. Beneficiary Designations

Beneficiary designations are commonly used for financial accounts and certain assets, such as life insurance policies, retirement accounts, and payable-on-death (POD) bank accounts. By naming beneficiaries on these accounts, you can bypass probate and provide your loved ones with a direct transfer of assets upon your death. Here’s what you should consider:

a. Regularly Review and Update: Life events such as marriages, divorces, or children’s birth may require adjustments to beneficiary designations. Periodically review and update your beneficiaries to ensure your assets go to the intended recipients.

b. Primary and Contingent Beneficiaries: Designate primary beneficiaries as the first recipients of the assets and contingent beneficiaries as the backups in case the primary beneficiaries predecease you.

  1. Living Trusts

Living trusts, or revocable living trusts, are a highly effective estate planning tool for avoiding probate in Washington State. By creating a trust, you can transfer ownership of assets into the trust’s name while retaining control during your lifetime. Upon your passing, the assets are distributed to your chosen beneficiaries without going through probate. Key considerations for setting up a living trust include:

a. Appoint a Trustee: As the trust’s creator, you can serve as the initial trustee, managing the assets within the trust. Also, name successor trustees who will manage the trust if you become incapacitated or pass away.

b. Fund the Trust: Transfer your assets into the trust by changing the ownership title to the trust’s name. While living, you can freely add or remove assets from the trust as needed.

c. Retain Flexibility: One significant advantage of living trusts is their revocability. You can amend or revoke the trust during your lifetime if your circumstances change or you wish to make alterations.

Other Methods to Consider

In addition to the primary strategies mentioned above, here are some other methods to consider for avoiding probate in Washington State:

a. Joint Ownership: Holding property jointly with rights of survivorship can allow the surviving joint owner to inherit the property upon your passing automatically.

b. Small Estate Affidavit: If the total value of your estate is relatively small, your heirs may be able to utilize a simplified probate process called a Small Estate Affidavit. Though uncommon, a State of Washington Affidavit of Successor (Small Estate Affidavit) expedites the probate process for estates worth less than $100,000. It is essential to note that this procedure is not for real property, such as a house or land. 

c. Community Property Agreements: Washington State allows married couples to sign community property agreements, converting their individually owned property into community property. A CPA simplifies the transfer of assets between spouses upon death.

Proper estate planning ensures that your assets are transferred efficiently and according to your wishes. In Washington State, avoiding probate can be achieved through various means, such as Deeds of Trust, Beneficiary Designations, and Living Trusts. Each method has its advantages, so working closely with a knowledgeable trust and estates attorney is essential to develop a personalized plan that meets your specific needs and objectives.

By taking proactive steps to avoid probate, you can provide your loved ones with a smoother transition during a difficult time while potentially reducing costs and maintaining the privacy of your estate. Protect your legacy today by engaging in comprehensive estate planning with the help of a reputable estate planning and probate attorney.