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Will Contests

Posted Friday, April 26, 2013 by John S. Palmer

A disinherited spouse has standing to participate in a will contest brought by other disinherited heirs, according to a new decision by the Washington Supreme Court.

In Becker v. Estate of Becker (decided April 11, 2013), the court unanimously ruled in favor of Dr. Nancy Becker, the surviving spouse of Dr. Tory Becker. Tory died in 2008; his will left everything to a minor child he fathered with Nancy, and named Nancy as personal representative of his estate.

Tory’s 3 adult daughters from a prior marriage challenged the will. A guardian ad litem was appointed to represent the minor child’s interests in the will contest. A settlement was reached between the adult daughters, their mother, and the GAL on behalf of the minor to divide the estate among them.

Nancy refused to sign the agreement, either as surviving spouse or as personal representative of the estate. At the request of the adult daughters and GAL, she was removed as personal representative and an attorney was appointed in her place, but the attorney also refused to sign off on the settlement agreement on the grounds that it was not in the best interest of minor child or the estate.

The GAL brought a motion to clarify Nancy’s standing to participate in the will contest or settlement. The trial court and court of appeals both held she lacked standing, but the Supreme Court disagreed.

The court noted that the proposed settlement was made under the Trusts and Estates Dispute Resolution Act (often referred to as TEDRA), which provides that a settlement agreement resolving any matter involving a trust or estate is binding and conclusive on all parties interested in the estate or trust, if it is signed by all interested parties.

Because an “interested party” in a will contest is “one who has a direct, immediate, and legally ascertained pecuniary interest in the devolution of the testator’s estate, such as would be impaired or defeated by the probate of the will or benefited by the declaration that it is invalid,” the court concluded that Nancy had standing to participate in the will contest, and was therefore a necessary party to any agreement settling it. There was no evidence that the decedent had a prior will that would be revived if the will contest were successful. Therefore, Nancy stood to inherit under the intestacy statute if her late husband had no valid will, or could inherit under the omitted spouse statute if any prior will was executed before she married the decedent:

Under either circumstance, Nancy would inherit 50 percent of Tory’s estate… Thus, Nancy has a very substantial interest in the estate if the will contest were to be successful. Because Nancy would have a significant interest in the estate if the will were declared invalid, she has a direct interest in any settlement of the will contest. Therefore, she is a party under TEDRA.

The court also found no merit in the adult daughters’ claim that Nancy lacked standing because she chose not to contest the will herself, because “her decision not to file a will contest would not prevent her from receiving her fair share should a court find that will to be invalid… If the will contest is successful…it will not simply pass to those who chose to contest the will.”

The court did not address how the outcome might have changed if the will contest were successful but the decedent had executed a valid prior will disinheriting Nancy after they married, precluding an omitted spouse claim.

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