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Estate Debtor Cannot Contest Will

Posted Monday, December 24, 2012 by John S. Palmer

A defendant in a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the decedent’s estate lacks standing to contest the decedent’s Will, according to a new opinion by the Washington Court of Appeals.

The case involved a claim brought against a doctor by a surviving spouse alleging that he had failed to properly diagnose the decedent’s cancer in a timely manner.

The surviving spouse had been appointed Personal Representative of the decedent’s estate pursuant to a Will he executed shortly before his death. After he was sued, the doctor alleged that the Will was a fraud because the husband was “comatose” on the day it was signed. The trial court declared the Will invalid and ruled that all actions taken by the surviving spouse in her capacity as Personal Representative-including the filing of the wrongful death suit-were null and void. As a result, the trial court dismissed the suit and ruled it could not be re-filed because the statute of limitations had run.

The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the doctor lacked standing to challenge the Will.

Washington’s will contest statute can be found in Chapter 11.24 of the Revised Code of Washington. RCW 11.24.010 permits “any person interested in any will” to petition the court to rule on whether a decedent was competent to sign a will or signed one under duress or undue influence.

The trial court found that the doctor’s status as a defendant in the wrongful death lawsuit was sufficient to make him a “person interested” in the husband’s Will, thereby giving him standing to contest it. However the Court of Appeals disagreed, stating that “only an individual who possesses a ‘direct, pecuniary interest’ in the devolution of the testator’s estate may contest a will.” It also cited precedent from 1939 for the proposition that the doctor’s only relationship to the estate was that of a potential debtor and that as such, it was of no consequence to him who the court appointed as Personal Representative, or whether there were technical deficiencies in the way the surviving spouse was appointed. Because the doctor “did not claim a direct interest entitling him to take a part of [the decedent’s] estate, he lacked standing to contest the will”.

The Court of Appeals also found that the doctor lacked standing to use Civil Rule 60(b) to challenge the surviving spouse’s appointment as Personal Representative of her late husband’s estate; relief under CR 60(b), which allows a court to set aside a judgment for various reasons, including fraud, would only be available to the doctor if he were an heir or other formal party to the probate proceeding.

Finally, while a non-party can collaterally attack a judgment obtained for the purpose of defrauding that party, the court said that there was no evidence that the surviving spouse obtained her appointment through fraud or for the purpose of defrauding the doctor; because the surviving spouse was entitled to serve as Personal Representative even if the will was invalid, “no machinations regarding [the will] were necessary to make the wrongful death suit viable.”

In the Matter of the Estate of Finch, Washington Court of Appeals docket nos. 67195-2-I and 67277-1-I, decided December 3, 2012.

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