What Rights To Inheritance Do Financial Abusers of Elders Have?
Under Washington law, it has long been the case that a person who slays another cannot inherit from his victim. In 2009, the Washington legislature added financial abuse of a vulnerable person as an additional rationale for statutory disinheritance. No person shall be allowed to profit by his or her own wrong, wherever committed, to the extent that wrong financially exploits a vulnerable adult. RCW 11.84.900. A person who participates either directly, or indirectly as an accessory before the fact, in the willful and unlawful financial exploitation of a vulnerable adult shall not in any way acquire property or receive a benefit as a result of the death of his victim. RCW 11.84.020, 11.84.160.
Records of conviction of the crimes of theft, forgery, fraud, identity theft, robbery, burglary, or extortion of the vulnerable adult, including any other crimes of financial exploitation of the vulnerable adult, shall be admissible as evidence in a claim to exclude the abuser from any benefit from his victim’s estate. RCW 11.84.130. Final judgment of conviction in any of these crimes is conclusive evidence of abuse. A superior court finding by clear, cogent, and convincing evidence that a person participated in financial exploitation of the decedent is conclusive evidence of abuse, even if the abuser was acquitted of the crimes mentioned above. RCW 11.84.150. Findings by the Department of Social and Health Services or Adult Protective Services are not admissible for any purpose in making the determination whether a person is an abuser. RCW 11.84.160.
An abuser is deemed to have predeceased his victim for purposes of testate or intestate inheritance. RCW 11.84.040. Property held jointly by the abuser and his victim passes to the estate of the victim in its entirety. RCW 11.84.050. Insurance proceeds due to the decedent’s abuser shall not pass to the abuser but rather to the estate of the decedent. RCW 11.84.100.
The abuser cannot receive any benefits from Washington State Department of Retirement Systems pensions or benefits. For the purposes of retirement benefits, a person is an abuser if he is convicted of a crime that determines the defendant to be an abuser (theft, forgery, fraud, identity theft, robbery, burglary, or extortion) or a civil lawsuit or probate proceeding, even in the absence of a criminal conviction, in which the defendant is determined to be an abuser by clear, cogent, and convincing evidence, then the abuser is treated as having predeceased the victim, and receives nothing. RCW 41.04.273.
Despite a person’s financial exploitation of a vulnerable adult, the abuser may receive his victim’s assets by operation of law if a court determines by clear, cogent, and convincing evidence that the deceased vulnerable adult knew of the abuser’s financial exploitation, and after such knowledge persevered in her intent to transfer assets to the abuser. A court in permitting an abuser to inherit or receive a benefit, despite the abuser’s financial exploitation, may consider the victim’s entire plan of post-death giving, the decedent’s intent under all the circumstances, and the degree of financial harm inflicted by the abuser. RCW 11.84.170.
Financial abusers receive nothing from the abused person’s estate.
In re Estate of Haviland, 177 Wn.2d 68, 301 P.3d 32 (2013).
Mary Burden, thirty-five year old nurse at Providence Hospital with prior criminal convictions, met James Haviland, a retired medical doctor then eighty-five years old, when Haviland was admitted for treatment at her hospital. After his discharge from Providence, Haviland and Burden dated. Haviland agreed to give Burden $100,000 for education and more than $300,000 for a nest egg. Haviland and Burden married in 1997, and Haviland changed his Will four times over the next nine years, each time giving more of his estate to Burden. When Haviland died of advanced dementia, his children learned that the estate, after paying specific bequests, had a substantial negative value. They brought a Will contest, and asked the court to find that Burden had financially exploited a vulnerable adult.
The trial court found undue influence on Burden’s part, set aside Haviland’s last Will, and removed Burden as personal representative. The trial court, however, also found that the financial abuser disinheritance statute (RCW 11.84.020) could not be invoked by the Haviland estate. Burden appealed, and the Supreme Court upheld setting aside the Will, but found that the financial abuser disinheritance statute applied to the Haviland Estate.