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Washington Inheritance Laws

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Would you be entitled to receive inheritance from your biological child whom you terminated ties with?

This was the central issue in the 2001 case of Thomas A. Fleming’s estate. Thomas Fleming was born in Washington to Margaret Fleming in 1946 but was immediately put up for adoption. A parental termination order was finalized the following year, and Thomas was placed in the care of a Catholic charity organization. 

Thomas, who was never adopted, died at the age of 50 without any will in place. As his personal representative initiated a legal process to determine his heirs, Margaret filed a petition to be recognized as Thomas’ legal heir, as she proclaimed herself to be his biological mother. However, Thomas’ personal representative counter-argued that she was not qualified because she terminated all her maternal rights with Thomas in 1947. 

The Supreme Court eventually ruled in favor of Thomas’ personal representative. It explained that as Margaret severed the parent-child relationship a year after Thomas was born and put him up for adoption, she no longer stood as his legal parent. Thus, Margaret was not entitled to intestate distribution under Washington laws.

This is just the tip of how estate planning, family dynamics, and inheritance laws play out in the state of Washington. In this article, you will learn more about the importance of a will, what makes one valid in Washington, and common reasons to contest one. Also discussed in this article are the duties of a personal representative and the intestate succession rules in the state. Read on to learn what happens when a person with a will dies and how the estate of someone without a will is distributed in the Evergreen State.

What Is a Will?

One of the best ways to ensure your family’s financial security is to execute a proper will. According to the Washington State Bar Association, a last will and testament — or simply a will — is a “legal document that governs the disposition” of one’s assets, properties, and the like in the event they pass away. 

The will serves as a set of instructions on how the personal representative (also called the executor or executrix) should execute the wishes of the deceased. In this document, the testator (the one who made the will) outlines how they want their property to be distributed, identifies their intended recipients, and specifies other details.

What Happens if Someone Dies With a Will in Washington?

When a person in Washington dies and leaves a will, their personal representative should be contacted as soon as possible. It will be the representative’s primary duty to manage the deceased’s estate in accordance with the terms of the will.

Within 30 days from the date of death, all valid and signed wills must be filed with the Clerk’s Office of the Superior Court of the county where the deceased was living. This is true whether their estate is to be probated or not.

It is also noteworthy to mention that there is no law requiring a probate case to be filed following a death in Washington, regardless of whether there is a will. This means that probate proceedings are entirely discretionary.

What Is a Valid Will?

Anyone who is 18 or older and of sound mind can make a last will and testament in Washington. The minimum requirements of a will are the following:

  • It must be written (either typewritten or handwritten — also known as “holographic will”).

  • It must be signed by the testator. The testator can also have someone else sign for them.

  • It must be signed in the presence of two competent witnesses (who are not beneficiaries). 

  • It must be signed by the witnesses. The witnesses can also sign a self-proving affidavit, which is a separate document indicating they swear to the authenticity of the will. This is often attached to the will and verified by a notary.

Considering these minimum requirements, it goes without saying that nuncupative or oral wills are not deemed valid in Washington, except for specific circumstances. Also, the state does not have a statutory will, meaning that there is no specific form for wills. Residents can create and customize their own, or they can engage the services of an estate planning lawyer to draft one for them. 

In accordance with the Uniform Electronic Wills Act, electronic wills are accepted in Washington, so long as they are readable at the time of signing. An electronic will must be signed — physically or electronically — by the testator and at least two competent witnesses.

If a Washington resident makes a will outside the state, called a foreign will, this can still be considered valid if it meets the aforementioned requirements. Another instance in which Washington will recognize the validity of a foreign will is if it is prepared in the “mode prescribed by the law of the place” where it is executed.

Contesting a Will

Sometimes, issues arise when the last will and testament of the deceased is made known. Common scenarios are a disgruntled heir questioning the distribution of the estate assets, someone expecting to be included in the will being left out, or wills allegedly manipulated to benefit a specific individual over others. Unwitnessed holographic wills, which are not accepted in Washington, are also a usual reason to initiate a court proceeding known as a will contest. 

In Washington, any interested party can file a petition in court to contest the validity of the will. These parties must have a direct pecuniary interest in the probate of the will, which means they will experience financial loss should the will be accepted.

An interested party should have a good reason for contesting the will. Some of the issues that would be considered by the court include:

  • Matters concerning the testator’s capacity or competency to execute the will.

  • Whether there was an element of duress, undue influence, or fraud.

  • Any other cause that would affect the validity of the will in whole or in part. 

The burden of proving these issues rests on the petitioner.

This petition, which signals the start of a will contest, must be filed within four months following the probate or the rejection. Then, the one who filed the petition (the petitioner) must personally serve a notice of the filing to the personal representative within 90 days. If the notice is not served within this period, the petition will not be considered by the court.

In case a will is successfully challenged, the will or parts of it will be annulled or revoked. However, if no one comes forward within four months to initiate a will contest, the probate or rejection will be deemed final.

What Is the Deadman’s Statute in Washington?

The Revised Code of Washington 5.60.030, more popularly referred to as “The Deadman’s Statute,” bars certain individuals from testifying in court regarding transactions they had with the testator when doing so would only be beneficial for them. This also applies to statements made by the deceased while in their presence.

The Deadman’s Statute’s objective is to prevent fraud. It operates on the premise that these individuals will provide testimonies that will solely benefit them. Given that the other party is already deceased, it is virtually impossible to ascertain the veracity of their testimonies. 

What Happens if Someone Dies Without a Will in Washington?

If a Washington resident dies without a will, the state decides how their assets will be distributed and who the recipients will be according to intestate succession rules. The state will appoint a personal representative to handle the decedent’s estate through the probate process.

This distribution generally depends on the decedent’s civil status and their closest kin at the time of death. Was the deceased married or single? Do they have children, siblings, or parents? Here are some of the general rules:

SINGLE

If the decedent has children

Their children will inherit everything. 

If the decendent is childless

All of their assets will go to their parents.

If they do not have children or parents at the time of their death

Their siblings will be named the beneficiaries.

MARRIED

If the decedent is married, childless, and has deceased parents

The surviving spouse will be entitled to everything the deceased owned.

If the decedent is married and childless but the parents are still living

The surviving spouse will receive 100% of the community property (those acquired throughout their marriage) and 75% of the separate property (those acquired before marriage or through inheritance); the parents will get the remaining 25% of the separate property. 

If the parents are no longer alive but the decedent’s siblings are, then the siblings will be entitled to 25% of the separate property assets.

If the decedent is married and has children

All the community property assets and 50% of the separate properties will go to the surviving spouse. 

The children will be entitled to the remaining 50% of the separate property assets.

Spousal Rights

Washington is a community property state. This means any and all properties purchased or acquired throughout one’s marriage or during a recognized and legal domestic partnership are considered shared between the couple. Exceptions to this rule, however, are inheritances and gifts they gave to each other; these remain under the separate property classification.

For putative spouses, or those who enter into a marriage not knowing that their spouse is already married, the innocent party can still inherit from separate property assets. Meanwhile, all acquisitions by the guilty party are considered communal property with the legal spouse. 

Intestate succession rules governing married couples in the Evergreen State also apply to registered domestic partners. However, if the decedent is living with a partner whom they are not legally married to or recognized to be in a domestic partnership with, the loved one is not deemed a qualified relative. Simply put, they would not inherit anything.

Children’s Rights

When it comes to the division of assets among children, the size of each share depends on how many children the decedent had. 

Children who are legally recognized by the state of Washington would, of course, receive inheritance. Meanwhile, those born outside of a legal marriage are not entitled to automatically get a share unless the father’s paternity has been established under state rules. Children born into an invalid marriage have the right to be supported by their parents. They are likewise granted the right to inherit from their parents.

As with biological children, legally adopted children would also receive intestate inheritance. Meanwhile, foster children and stepchildren who have not been legally adopted are not considered automatic beneficiaries. If the deceased has biological children who have been legally adopted by another family, these children are likewise not entitled to automatic shares. On the other hand, if the decedent has conceived a child prior to their death, the child is entitled to receive inheritance under Washington’s laws.

Washington laws also observe the presumption of parenthood. If the decedent is married and their wife or registered domestic partner bears a child during their partnership, the child is assumed to be the decedent’s own. This means that the child will automatically receive a share of the estate.

If the deceased has any grandchildren, they will only receive a share if their parents (the decedent’s children) are no longer living at this point.

Estates With No Heirs

If absolutely no relatives of the deceased can be located, then all of the assets will be escheated to the state. In such cases, Washington has a right to take ownership of all of the decedent’s properties. The state can also claim escheat rights over assets or properties that have been unclaimed for a prolonged period, a situation referred to as bona vacantia.

Which Assets Do Not Undergo Probate in an Intestate Succession?

Some assets may not pass through probate or be affected by intestate succession. These non-probate assets will be awarded to the surviving co-owners or the identified beneficiaries, whether or not the deceased left a will. A few examples are the following:

  • Items transferred to a living trust.

  • Proceeds from a life insurance policy or funds from an IRA, 401(k), or retirement accounts with identified beneficiaries.

  • Real estate properties and securities in a transfer-on-death account or deed.

  • Bank accounts that are payable-on-death.

  • Properties co-owned with another person in a joint tenancy agreement or tenancy in its entirety.

Unique Situations in Washington Inheritance Law

Here are a few more things one needs to know about the state’s intestacy laws:

  • Qualified relatives will receive their respective intestate shares, regardless of their immigration status. This means if one of the decedent’s qualified relatives is not a U.S. citizen or resident, they will still be entitled to their inheritance.

  • Qualified relatives who had received property from the decedent prior to their death could have this property deducted from their intestate shares. The exception is if it can be proven that the property in question is a gift and not an advancement.

  • Any person who willfully and unlawfully kills or abuses the decedent is not entitled to any of the latter’s assets or properties. Even if they are a legal child or parent, they will not be eligible for any inheritance if the court finds that they abused the subject or caused their death.

  • The heirs or beneficiaries must outlive the decedent by 120 hours. A sample scenario is a case where parent A and their child B suffer an accident; if A dies, B would only be entitled to intestate succession if they live 120 hours longer than A.

  • In the Evergreen State, half-relatives have the same rights as “whole” relatives. The only exception is if the property in question was inherited from ancestors, which should remain within the blood family according to state laws.

Does Washington Impose Inheritance and Estate Taxes?

Washington does not levy taxes on inheritance; however, it does have an estate tax. This means that beneficiaries do not need to pay taxes on the assets or properties they inherit. However, there is still a tax on the right to transfer the decedent’s properties, with the amount generally depending on the value of the estate. The duty to pay these estate taxes primarily falls on the executor and must be done before the assets are distributed to the heirs.

Resources Related to Inheritance Law in Washington

Northwest Justice Project

The Northwest Justice Project is administered by the Pro Bono and Public Service Committee of the Washington State Bar Association, or WSBA. As one of the largest publicly funded legal aid programs in the state, the project aims to provide assistance and representation to low-income individuals who are facing civil legal concerns. Those seeking help can call 1-855-657-8387 or fill out its online form.

The Northwest Justice Project, in partnership with the Pro Bono Net, also maintains WashingtonLawHelp.org. This website is a comprehensive directory of civil legal services available to underprivileged and senior members of the Washington community. It also has basic information and education materials and tools to serve as a guide for some legal problems (like estate planning), as well as instructions and forms for those who choose to represent themselves in court.

Moderate Means Program

The Moderate Means Program is a partnership between WSBA and the law schools of the University of Washington, Seattle University, and Gonzaga University. It offers legal assistance at reduced costs. The program connects lawyers with moderate-income individuals who are dealing with legal concerns regarding family, housing, and unemployment, among others. To start the process, call 1-855-741-6930 or complete the online application.

Alliance for Equal Justice

The Alliance for Equal Justice is another legal aid center under WSBA. It comprises various state legal organizations that offer help to individuals and communities facing civil matters relating to injustice and poverty. For assistance, contact the Alliance or reach out to their partner organizations.

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