The HBO series The Gilded Age opens in the year 1882, with the character Marian Brook learning upon her father’s death that her only viable alternative to getting a job (gasp!) is to move from her (rented) home in rural Pennsylvania to her aunt’s New York City mansion. Marian is an only child whose mother died long ago. In one of the opening scenes, Marian meets with her father’s former attorney, who now appears to be serving as her attorney, to discuss her inheritance. Instead, she learns that her father had few remaining assets and many debts. Her comfortable life was an illusion. After her father’s debts are paid, Marian’s attorney informs her that, if he waives his fee, she will inherit $30 (about $727 in 2022 dollars).
Would an attorney be able to settle someone’s affairs following death quickly and seemingly without probate? Probably not. As with nearly all instances where the law appears in a fictionalized setting, it is fair to assume that the writers sacrificed accuracy for plot and streamlined the legal proceedings to catapult Marian into the world of gilded age New York society. This blog post is not about the Pennsylvania probate code that was in effect in the 1890s, however. Rather, it is about what happens when someone dies, as Marian’s father did, with few or no assets and a long list of creditors.
A probate might never be opened for an estate where there are few assets to be distributed. Estates that do not require a probate may still require some administration to address the payment of debts, funeral expenses, costs of estate administration, and the distribution of any assets remaining after the payment of those obligations. When an estate is administered without a probate, it is known as a nonprobate estate. A nonprobate estate does not mean that the heirs and beneficiaries of the estate can simply walk away with the assets of an estate. Typically, creditors still must be paid or debts must be settled first.
In Washington, RCW Chapter 11.42 establishes the procedure that must be followed to settle creditor claims for an estate when no probate has been opened. In the absence of a Personal Representative, who is only appointed in a probate, a notice agent meeting certain qualifications listed in RCW 11.42.010 takes charge. The notice agent may file and publish a nonprobate notice to creditors following the procedure set forth at RCW 11.42.020. The statute further establishes the requirements for a valid creditor claim and sets time limits for when a creditor can file them.
The benefit to heirs in having a notice agent proceed with a nonprobate notice to creditors is that the claim of any creditor can be time-barred earlier than if the nonprobate notice to creditors procedure is not followed. As long as the notice agent follows the requirements at RCW 11.42, any creditor claim not presented within four months of the date of first publication of the notice is prohibited. If the procedure for nonprobate notice to creditors is not followed, a creditor has 24 months from a person’s death to collect any valid claims against their assets.
Did Marian or her attorney follow any non-probate notice to creditor procedure in The Gilded Age? Unlikely. It appears that creditors were simply paid in full, and Marian inherited what little remained. Had Marian lived in modern Washington and Title 11 applied to the nonprobate administration of her father’s estate, things may have worked out differently for her. Stay tuned for the next post in this series, which will discuss the order in which costs of administration, funeral expenses, and creditor claims are paid in nonprobate estates.
This post is for informational purposes and does not contain or convey legal advice. The information herein should not be used or relied upon in regard to any particular facts or circumstances without first consulting with an attorney.