Justia Washington Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Trusts & Estates
by
When Dr. Virgil Becker, Jr. died, his will left everything to his youngest daughter. His three older daughters contested the will, and the issue before the Supreme Court on appeal was whether his surviving spouse, Dr. Nancy Becker, had standing to participate in that will contest. Upon review, the Supreme Court held that because Nancy had a direct, immediate, and legally ascertainable interest in the decedent's estate if the will was declared invalid, she would have standing in the will contest. View "In re Estate of Becker" on Justia Law

by
Dr. James Haviland was a medical doctor who practiced in the Seattle area. Several years after the death of his first wife, the 85-year-old Dr. Haviland met 35-year-old Mary Burden who worked at the hospital where he was a patient. Following his discharge, the two began dating, and the doctor agreed to pay towards Ms. Burden's education and gave her an additional "nest egg." The couple married in 1997. The day before the wedding, Dr. Haviland changed his will to include his new wife, and revised it several more times during the marriage. The 2006 amendment allowed the doctor's total probate estate to pass to his new wife, excepting several special bequests. Ms. Haviland amended the doctor's living trust, transferred securities for her own benefit, and made multiple large cash gifts to her family members. Large sums of money were also transferred from the couple's joint checking account to Ms. Haviland's separate account. After Dr. Haviland died, his children contested the multiple amendments to his will. The trial court ultimately found that the estate was "so depleted by Mary's transfer of funds that, after distribution of specific bequests, the total value of the estate is a negative." The court invalidated the will after finding that the 2006 amendment was the product of undue influence. During the pendency of the contest, the Washington legislature amended the slayer statutes to disinherit those who financially abuse vulnerable adults. In light of the amendments, the administrator of the doctor's estate requested the trial court to determine whether Ms. Haviland should have been disinherited based on her conduct with respect to Dr. Haviland and as found by the trial court. The court determined that the abuser statutes did not apply to deny Ms. Haviland benefits from the estate since the statutes were triggered by financial abuse. The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded, holding that the petition filed during probate to adjudicate whether an individual is an abuser was the triggering event for the statutes to apply, and as such, acted prospectively applied to the Haviland estate. Ms. Haviland appealed the appellate court's holding. After its review, the Supreme Court affirmed, concurring that the abuser statutes act prospectively, and that the filing of the abuser petition during probate is the trigger. View "In re Estate of Haviland" on Justia Law

by
In this case, the issue before the Supreme Court was whether Jeffrey Manary or Edwin Anderson were entitled to a decedent's interest in real property that had been deeded to a trust. Manary claimed the interest as a successor trustee; his claim was based on the trust. Anderson claimed the interest as a testamentary beneficiary; his claim was based on chapter 11.11 RCW (the Testamentary Disposition of Nonprobate Assets Act). Upon review, the Supreme Court concluded that an owner complies with the Act when he specifically refers to a nonprobate asset in his will, even if he does not refer to the instrument under which the asset passes. Anderson was entitled to the decedent's interest in the property, but he was not entitled to attorney fees for answering the petition for review. View "Manary v. Anderson" on Justia Law

by
The Estates of Barbara J. Nelson and Sharon M. Bracken challenged the efforts of the Washington State Department of Revenue (DOR) to treat them as having engaged in a present taxable transfer of assets that were actually transferred years ago by Ms. Nelson’s and Ms. Bracken’s late husbands’ estates. DOR relied on the legislature’s adoption in 2005 of definitions from the federal estate tax regime. Upon review, the Supreme Court held that DOR exceeded its authority in enacting regulations that allowed it to treat transfers completed by William Nelson and Jim Bracken years ago as if the estates had elected to defer state estate tax on the transfers, to be paid by their wives’ estates. DOR stood on a different footing than the United States Treasury; "DOR must rely on the asserted authority of our legislature to tax transfers years after the fact absent any deferral agreement by the taxpayer." The Court reversed the trial court and directed summary judgment be entered in favor of the Estates. View "In re Estate of Bracken" on Justia Law

by
This case arose from the tragic death of a teenager Ashlie Bunch. Ashlie’s adoptive father, Steven Bunch (Bunch) brought an action under RCW 4.24.010, against the treatment center where Ashlie committed suicide, McGraw Residential Center. Ashley’s adoptive mother, Amy Kozel, sought to join the lawsuit as a necessary party under CR 19(a). The superior court denied Kozel’s motion and the Court of Appeals affirmed. Finding that Kozel satisfied statutory standing requirements and CR 19(a), the Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals and remanded the case for further proceedings. View "Estate of Bunch v. McGraw Residential Ctr." on Justia Law

by
The issue before the Supreme Court involved whether the children of a decedent's predeceased spouse could be considered "stepchildren" under the wrongful death recovery statute. The decedent Audrey Blessing and the children's father were married in 1964. The children's father died in 1994, and Blessing died in 2007. Her estate brought a wrongful death suit, arguing that the children ceased being her step children when their father died. The trial court relied on the close relationship the children and decedent maintained up until her death, and ruled that the children were indeed "stepchildren" and could be beneficiaries in the wrongful death action. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the stepchild/stepparent relationship legally ended before Blessing's death. Finding that the statutory term "stepchildren" was undefined in the statute, the Supreme Court held that which parent died first was irrelevant to whether a stepchild could maintain that status. "Any concerns over the result or regarding which stepchildren should be entitled to recover in a wrongful death suit are more appropriately factored into any damages determination." View "In re Estate of Blessing" on Justia Law

by
As part of the distribution of property following the dissolution of Kenneth Treiger and J’Amy Lyn Owens’ marriage, a home belonging to them (the Maplewood property) was sold, and, pursuant to a trust agreement, the proceeds were deposited in a trust account. Bank of America NA (the Bank), which had obtained a writ of attachment on the Maplewood property, filed a declaratory judgment action to determine each party’s rights to the proceeds. This presented two issues for the Supreme Court's review: (1) to determine whether the “Supplemental Decree of Dissolution” (Supplemental Decree) established a lien on the Maplewood property in favor of Treiger; and (2) to determine whether various documents were valid judgments. Upon review, the Court concluded that the Supplemental Decree established an equitable lien on the Maplewood property in favor of Treiger in the amount of one-half of the proceeds of the court-ordered sale of the property. Furthermore, Documents "1375" and "13761" were valid judgments entitling Treiger to further awards but that Document "1370" was properly not given separate effect. Accordingly, the Court affirm in part and reversed in part the decision of the Court of Appeals. View "Bank of America, NA v. Owens" on Justia Law