Washington Elder Law Practice Report (#13) / Probate and intestate succession meet meretricious relationships

March 5, 2014

Washington Elder LawThis is #13 in a continuing series of Washington Elder Law Practice Reports.

On the death of a person who has been in a meretricious relationship, the distribution of an estate may involve the intestate succession statutes.

Sometimes, a failure by individuals in such relationships to prepare Wills leads to these statutes in order to identify heirs.

In other cases, even the preparation of Wills cannot avoid such issues.

Consider a case from a few years ago that addressed issues arising when two persons in a meretricious relationship were both killed instantly in an automobile accident. (Olver v. Fowler, 161 Wash.2d 655, 168 P.3d 348, 2007.)

In this case, the Deceased individuals had prepared Wills that named each other as sole Beneficiaries, with no alternates, so the intestate succession statutes governed their estates (under the uniform simultaneous death act, RCW Ch. 11.05 at the time).

Both Wills failed.

Based on the relationship, the trial court ordered that the assets of the couple were to be divided equally among their estates.

This ruling was appealed, challenging whether the assets should have been divided after the deaths of the individuals, based on a lifetime meretricious relationship.

The challenger advocated that, on death, the equitable interests in property were lost.

The Supreme Court found that the deaths did not extinguish the interests.

The Court also declined to rule on the issue of joint tort liability in the context of committed intimate relationships, finding that such a ruling would be advisory under the circumstances of the case.

Thus, the meretricious relationship and the intestate succession statutes were applied together to determine the distributions of estates in this case.

The application of the intestate succession statutes in such cases depends on the nature of relationships among individuals, which are experiencing significant change today.

Therefore, the determination of heirs is also evolving.

Elder law practice in Washington is discussed by Cheryl and Ferd Mitchell in volumes 26 and 26A of Washington Practice (Washington Elder Law and Practice and the associated Elder Law Handbook). Probate practice is covered in volume 26B, and also introduced in volume 26.