Law Office of John S. Palmer Attorney at Law

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Inheritance & Financial Abuse

Posted Friday, April 12, 2013 by John S. Palmer

Washington has long prohibited someone who participates in the willful killing of another from inheriting from the decedent. In 2009, the legislature amended the so-called slayer statutes to apply in certain cases of financial exploitation.

In order for the statute to apply, the victim of financial exploitation must have been a “vulnerable adult” as defined by the Vulnerable Adult Protection Act, which includes an individual who is sixty years of age or older and lacks the functional, mental, or physical capacity to care for himself or herself; has been found to be incapacitated under the guardianship statutes; or who is developmentally disabled.

A conviction for conduct constituting financial exploitation against the decedent, including theft, forgery, fraud, identity theft, robbery, burglary, or extortion, is conclusive for purposes of determining whether a person is an “abuser” under the statute, and the record of any such conviction is admissible in any civil proceeding initiated to prohibit the abuser from inheriting. In the absence of a criminal conviction, clear, cogent, and convincing evidence that a person participated in conduct constituting financial exploitation against the decedent is required for a court to find that a person is an abuser for purposes of the applying the statute.

Once such a determination is made, the abuser is prohibited from acquiring any property or receiving any benefit as the result of the death of the decedent. This includes inheriting under the decedent’s Will; inheriting from the decedent’s estate under Washington’s intestacy statutes; or receiving the proceeds from an insurance policy on the life of the decedent. The statute also contains provisions to divest the abuser of property he or she acquired jointly with the decedent.

The Washington Supreme Court recently ruled that these financial abuse provisions of the slayer statutes may be applied even if the victim died before the provisions were adopted in 2009. In Estate of Haviland (decided March 14, 2013), the court considered whether the statute could be applied retroactively, and whether the triggering event for purposes of applying the statute is the date the abuse occurred, the date the victim dies, or the date a petition is filed in the decedent’s probate proceeding to disinherit the alleged abuser.

In a 5-4 decision, the majority held that the triggering event for application of the statute is the filing of a petition to disinherit the alleged abuser, and therefore the statute was being applied prospectively as applied to the Haviland estate:

It is the challenge to property distribution based on abuse that triggers application of the statute, even though the abuse itself occurred in the past…

Here, the abuser statutes intend to regulate the receipt of benefits, not the financial abuse itself. Thus, despite the fact that abuse occurred prior to the amendments at issue, the triggering event is the attempt by the abuser to receive property or any other benefit from the estate of the abused person.

In a strongly worded dissent, the 4-justice minority stated that “concluding the statute is triggered by the filing of the petition will, in some cases, place new consequences on completed acts, in violation of the principle that people are entitled to know the consequences of their actions before they take them.” The dissent said the statute should apply prospectively only and the event triggering application of the statute should be the death of the alleged victim, which would have precluded its application to the Haviland estate.

The ruling means that the trial court may now proceed with a petition filed by the estate’s administrator to determine whether the decedent’s surviving spouse (who was 50 years younger than the decedent) should be prohibited from inheriting under the statute.

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Law Office of John S. Palmer11911 NE 1st St, Ste. B204,Bellevue, WA 98005-3056