So you’ve had your day in court, you’ve established yourself as the Executor (aka Personal Representative) with the IRS and the bank, and you’ve taken care of the most immediate concerns. Now what?
Next you must officially notify various parties about the probate case and your status as executor. There are some deadlines associated with this, too, so this is no time to rest on your laurels. Stay busy, and stay organized.
First up, within 20 days of your appointment, you must officially notify the heirs and beneficiaries. Because in most cases this must be done by mail, it is a good practice to ensure you have correct mailing addresses for everyone as early as possible. So, to whom, exactly, are you sending this notice? Well, obviously, anyone named as a beneficiary in the will must be notified. Is that it? Possibly, but also anyone who would normally be considered an heir but who might have been left out of the will, intentionally or otherwise. In other words, if the decedent died intestate, i.e. without leaving a will, who would be the default heirs according to law? Any surviving spouse comes first to mind, and any children second. If any children predeceased, or died earlier, then the children of those predeceased children step into their place. If there is no surviving spouse and no surviving children (or grandchildren, etc), then the deceased’s parents are next in line, if they are still alive. If there is no spouse, no children, grandchildren, etc, and no parents, then the brothers and sisters of the deceased, and their children if those siblings are already gone, etc. It goes on from there, and can get quite complex. The complete rules are spelled out at wa-probate.com.
Must you notify everyone conceivable on this list? Not necessarily. But, if there is a spouse not named in the will, you must notify that person. If there are children not named in the will, you must notify them (or their guardians if they are minors). If there are predeceased children, then you must notify the grandchildren in that line, and so on. You do not need to officially notify surviving parents unless there are no spouses, children, etc, thus making the parents the default heirs of an intestate estate. You can choose to do so, and certainly one hopes that you will at least have told them what is going on, but you don’t necessarily need to involve them in all the legalities unless they are officially beneficiaries or potential heirs. The same goes for siblings.
So how is official notification handled? You will prepare a document entitled Notice of Appointment of Personal Representative and Pendency of Probate & Declaration of Mailing (With Will) (this, and many other forms, can be found in template form at wa-probate.com), sign it, attach to it a Declaration of Mailing in which you list the names and addresses of each heir and beneficiary being so notified (sign that, too), and attach also a conformed copy of the will (meaning the case number and date it was admitted to court are stamped at the top of the first page). You will send a copy of this combined document to each one, and you will file a copy with the court.
Does that mean you have to go back to the courthouse? Not at all. Now that the case is opened, you can file by mail, or, in King County, you can file online. I strongly recommend this latter approach, as it will save you considerable time as well as postage, and once you learn how to navigate the website, it becomes fairly easy. Instead of a stamp at the top of filed documents, you will get a ‘receipt’ page, which you simply attach with filed documents for your own files (and any copies you send to others).
This has now put everyone on notice that they have four months from the opening of the probate in which to file a contest if they disagree with anything. If they are ok with the will and how things are going, they don’t need to do anything yet.
Also within that same 20 days you will publish a notice to creditors in an appropriate legal or business journal and send notice to the Department of Social and Health Services. Technically you have 30 days to publish the creditor notice, but you need to tell DSHS within 20 days what the date of that publication is, so it’s easiest to do that first.
The Probate Notice to Creditors was one of the documents you originally filed with the court when you opened the case. The form has fields for Date of First Publication and Decedent’s SSN which you will have left blank up to this point. The first is because you couldn’t yet know what the date of first publication will be at the time of filing, and the second because a) you must never include an SSN on any document you file with the court (they will fine you if you do), and b) you also don’t want to include the SSN on the notice you publish in the paper or send to creditors. You do want to include it only on the form you send to DSHS. So, at this point you have a form with a filing conformation stamp at the top, a case number, and a signature, but two blank fields.
Find out which legal journal is authorized for this purpose in your county; in Seattle the Daily Journal of Commerce is apparently the most popular (and the one I picked). Contact them and let them know you have a Probate Notice to Creditors to publish, and they will tell you what the date of first publication will be. Note that this service is not cheap — it might seem as if publishing such legally required notices is the main source of income for these papers — and although technically optional, it is a very good idea and I strongly urge you to do it. You may get advice from various well-meaning people to not bother with such a notice, but if you don’t, then creditors have two years in which they can legally come after you and the estate for claims. If you do publish, and proactively notify any possible creditor you can think of, then that time frame is limited to four months. The usual fear with publishing a notice that literally invites everyone to make claims against the estate is that it will bring the crazies out of the woodwork with all sorts of false, fraudulent, and frivolous claims. However, it was my experience that this doesn’t actually happen (I did get a couple of letters offering to buy the deceased’s real estate, but that was it), and if you speak to any probate attorneys, they will all advise you to publish, as it protects you, the executor, from legal claims down the road.
So, send the notice to the journal (they will publish it three times, at one week intervals, and afterwards will send you an Affidavit of Publication to file with the court), fill in the date of first publication on your copy of the notice, make another copy of that and write in the SSN, then send that attached to a Declaration of Mailing of Probate Notice to Creditors to WDSHS to the Office of Financial Recovery, WDSHS, in Olympia. File a copy of the combined document (sans SSN!) with the court.
Now the next timer begins. Within 3 months of that date of first publication you must send a copy of the Probate Notice to Creditors (with date of first publication but without SSN) to each and every creditor you reasonably expect could have a valid claim against the estate. Who are these creditors? Well, hospitals, doctors, and pharmacies come immediately to mind. Hospitals are notorious for billing for services months after the services were rendered, and you don’t want that to happen, so you will let them know they have a definite time limit. So, you will want to go through the decedent’s correspondence and financial records to come up with a list of potential creditors. Even if you’re pretty sure the creditor has been fully paid off, put them on the list to make sure. The last thing you want is for them to come back months later and say that you didn’t properly notify them when you should have, and so therefore they are not subject to the statute of limitations. Besides medical facilities, there might be ambulance services (including the fire department), cellphone and cable providers, landlords or assisted living facilities, etc. So, send them all a copy of the Probate Notice to Creditors along with a Creditor’s Claim form in which you have pre filled out the header with the case information.
The creditors have up to four months from the date of first publication, or one month after you mail them the notice directly, whichever comes later, in which to file a claim. At this point, if any legitimate bills do come in, you should make the creditor file an official claim with the court. If claims come in, it is up to you, as executor, to determine if they are valid or not, and pay them or not. Use your best judgment. If in doubt, ask the creditor for documentation of the amount owed. In my case, all the bills had been paid at this point, so no further claims came in.
Now is when you have a bit of a breather. You have four months to wait for claims to come in, or not. Better than waiting two years, though, eh?
When the four months have elapsed, and all claims have been disposed of one way or another, you will file with the court a Declaration re Reasonable Review to Ascertain Decedent’s Creditors, in which you will list each creditor you notified. At this point, as long as you have dotted all the Is and crossed all the Ts, you and the estate are protected against any future claims.
By this point, also, the timer will have run out for any beneficiaries to file a contest, so the way is now clear to close out the probate and, by extension, the estate. One last thing remains before you can do that, and that is to file any outstanding tax returns with the IRS, and that will be the subject of the next post.