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Divorced Parent’s Rights re: Estate of Ex-Spouse

Posted Monday, November 5, 2012 by John S. Palmer

The parent of a minor child has broad rights to intervene in the estate of a deceased former spouse on behalf of the child, according to a new ruling by the Washington Court of Appeals.

The case involved a daughter born in 2002 to a US Navy officer who married a Japanese woman while stationed in Japan. The couple was divorced in Japan in 2006, and the mother continued to reside there until her death a year later. Her sister initiated a probate in Pierce County, apparently in an attempt to collect money owed the estate by the father under the Japanese divorce decree.

The father filed a petition under Washington’s Trusts and Estates Dispute Resolution Act (TEDRA), seeking to intervene in the estate on behalf of his daughter, who is the estate’s only heir. His petition asked that he be kept informed of Estate activity and that he be appointed custodian of any inheritance his daughter ultimately received from the Estate. The Estate moved to dismiss the petition, arguing that the father was a debtor of the estate and therefore could not simultaneously represent the interests of the heir. The trial court agreed with the Estate and dismissed the petition.

The Court of Appeals reversed. It noted that TEDRA is intended to aid in the resolution of any question arising in the administration of a decedent’s estate, and broadly defines a “party” to a TEDRA action to include not just the estate’s executor and heirs, but also “any person who has an interest in the subject of the particular proceeding.”

Although the father did not have custody of his daughter and may owe money to the estate, the Court ruled that he had a fundamental liberty interest as a parent to intervene under TEDRA to ensure that the Estate is efficiently administered and that any funds it collects go to his daughter. The court added that allowing him to participate in the proceeding “does not grant him authority to control the Estate assets or hinder the Estate’s attempts to collect those assets.”

The Court of Appeals did not rule on the merits of the father’s petition; it merely held that as the sole surviving parent of the Estate’s only heir, he had standing to bring his TEDRA petition despite any conflict of interest that may exist as a potential debtor of the estate. However, the court also noted that “the parties are long overdue in transferring this dispute from the antagonistic atmosphere of the courtroom to the settlement table” and that by allowing the petition to go forward the parties could take advantage of TEDRA’s provisions for mandatory mediation and arbitration, whereas dismissing the father’s petition would make settlement less likely.

The Court of Appeals also upheld the trial court’s decision not to permit enforcement of the Japanese divorce decree here in Washington on the grounds that enforcing the foreign decree would violate the father’s due process rights and Washington’s policy protecting the parent-child relationship. This portion of the opinion contains an excellent analysis of when a judgment entered by the court of another country is enforceable in Washington, and will be the subject of a separate blog post.

Estate of Toland, Washington Court of Appeals Division II, consolidated docket nos. 41388-4-II and 42187-9-II, decided September 25, 2012.

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