Before the assets from the estate of a decedent can be transferred to the decedent’s beneficiaries or heirs, the estate must go through probate. Probate is the process through which an estate is settled under the supervision of the court as required by the District of Columbia code. DC Code § 20–101 et seq. The purpose of probate is to make sure that the decedent’s property is distributed according to the decedent’s wishes or according to the law. It is also a way to make sure the decedent’s debts are paid. The personal representative, also referred to as the executor, who was named in the decedent’s will is responsible for managing the process. Not all estates must go through probate. If an estate’s value falls below a certain threshold, it is considered a “small estate” and may not require court supervision to be settled.
To initiate a probate case, the personal representative must file the decedent’s will and a Petition for Probate with the Register of Wills for the District of Columbia. The Register of Wills is located at the Superior Court Annex at 515 5th Street, NW, on the third floor. The Superior Court has jurisdiction over probate matters and serves as the probate court.
If the petition is approved, the will will be admitted to probate and the personal representative will be officially appointed. As proof of appointment, the personal representative will be given a document called “Letters of Administration” authorizing them to act on behalf of the estate. In addition, notices are published alerting creditors and heirs that a probate case has been opened.
To settle the decedent’s estate, the personal representative must complete the following tasks:
- Locate, secure, and appraise the assets in the probate estate, and send an inventory to interested parties
- Within 20 days after appointment, publish a notice notifying creditors of the timeframe of filing claims against the estate
- Pay valid claims that were filed within the 6-month claims period
- File decedent’s final tax returns and pay any taxes due
- Pay expenses of administration
- Distribute remaining estate assets to beneficiaries according to the terms of the will
In D.C., probate generally takes about 8-12 months, but can take longer if the process is complicated by probate litigation or complex assets.
Washington, D.C. has a simplified probate process for small estates, allowing a much quicker distribution of assets. To qualify for the process, the value of the decedent’s probate estate must not exceed $40,000. D.C. Code Ann. § § 20-351 et seq. Instead of going through all the steps required in formal probate, any person eligible to serve as the personal representative can file a Petition for Administration of a Small Estate. The petition must
- Confirm that the petitioner made a diligent search to discover all property and debts of the decedent
- Include a list of the known creditors of the decedent and amount owed
- Include a list of any legal proceedings pending in which the decedent was a party.
If the Court approves the petition, it will appoint a personal representative, direct payment of reasonable funeral expenses, admit the will to probate, and direct notice to be given to creditors. Creditors will have 30 days from the date the notice is published to submit claims. At that point the court will direct the personal representative to pay valid and timely filed claims and distribute assets.
Even though probate is a legal process, most of the activities are completed outside of court. However, if there are disagreements among the parties, the parties may have to settle the issues in court through probate litigation. There are a wide range of probate disputes that can turn into litigation:
- Will contests. D.C. Code Ann. § 20-305
- Disagreements over ownership of property
- Lawsuits brought to remove the personal representative
- Disputes between beneficiaries and the personal representative
- Actions for partition
- Demand for accounting
- Heirship claims
Probate litigation can have a significant impact on the proceeding. For example, it can result in a change in beneficiaries, it can extend the timeframe for the process, and it can result in added expense to the estate.
While probate is often associated with the reading of a will, intestate estates must also go through the probate administration process. There are two main differences. First, instead of the personal representative being nominated in the decedent’s will, the court will appoint a petitioner who meets the eligibility requirements. D.C. Code Ann. § 20-303. Second, instead of the assets being distributed based on instructions left by the decedent in their will, they are distributed to the decedent’s next of kin based on the law of intestate succession. D.C. Code Ann. § 19-301 et seq.