When someone dies in Washington without a will, state laws determine how that person’s estate is distributed. This can lead to family disputes and additional financial burdens on loved ones.
Careful estate planning can minimize negative repercussions and protect more of your property for those you love. The library has a variety of self-help books to help. Learn more about estate planning matters in Washington.
A Washington will gives a testator (the person making the will) the opportunity to specify how his property will be allocated after his death and to name a personal representative. It also allows him to establish a trust within his will to provide for heirs who cannot receive an outright distribution or to minimize gift and estate taxes.
A will should always be in writing. It must be signed by the testator, and at least two witnesses must subscribe their names to it in his presence or at his direction. Washington does not recognize holographic or nuncupative wills.
Marriage is a major life event that should always trigger a review of an existing estate plan. If a married person dies without a will, his spouse will inherit his entire community property and half of his separate property.
Powers of Attorney
A core element of estate planning is a power of attorney that authorizes an agent to make decisions on your behalf. The agent can be a family member, professional or trusted friend. A general POA allocates broad powers; a limited or springing POA takes effect for a specified purpose; or a durable POA goes into effect upon your incapacitation and only terminates with your death or when a revocation of POA form is signed.
The Northwest Justice Project provides forms and information for creating a power of attorney on its website. It also offers a wealth of self-help resources on topics like avoiding probate, transferring assets and tax matters. For more information, check out its Wills & Probate / Advanced Directives section and its Dealing With Death checklist.
Health Care Directives
A health care directive lets you put your end-of-life medical wishes on paper and name someone, called an agent, to carry out those instructions if you become incapacitated. An experienced Washington estate planning lawyer can explain how this document works and how it differs from a health care power of attorney, which authorizes a person to make medical decisions on your behalf.
Preferences often change as circumstances and knowledge change, so it’s important to review these documents periodically. You can also revoke an old advance directive by creating a new one and notifying your doctors and agents of the change. The Honoring Choices Pacific Northwest website provides advance directive forms that meet state filing requirements. They are available in several languages. A notary public or two witnesses must sign them in your presence.
A key element of estate planning involves naming beneficiaries to inherit part or all of your assets. This is important, but there are many other tools and techniques that can be used to help ensure your wishes are carried out both after death and during incapacitation.
A do-it-yourself kit may seem affordable, but if you have limited knowledge of the full range of estate planning tools and Washington law, you could create documents that are not valid or effective. This can cause unforeseen problems for you and your family.
You can ask friends, family members and co-workers for recommendations to a Washington estate lawyer. You can also use the library’s collection of self-help books to learn more about estate planning. Then, after you have narrowed your choices, contact attorneys to interview.
A skilled estate planning attorney can help you incorporate charitable giving strategies into your plan that align with your philanthropic goals. These can include a charitable remainder trust (CRT), which provides income to the donor or others for a period of time before distributing assets to charity. It can provide significant tax benefits.
Another strategy involves leaving a bequest in your will or trust that specifies a specific amount or percentage of your estate to go to a charity. These can also reduce your taxable estate and minimize federal gift and estate taxes. Many individuals choose community foundations to fulfill charitable intentions and reduce their tax exposure. These are similar to private foundations but are more streamlined. They can also be flexible and diversified.