Dying Declarations Are For Slayers Only

After the funeral people come to see me about probating the Last Will and Testament the family member left behind. The interview sometimes begins like this:
“Dad wanted me to have the farm. He told me so on his death-bed. He said, ‘I want you to have the farm’.”
family farm

I ask for the will and can find no reference to this bequest. Instead the client and all her siblings are listed share and share alike which means they all get an equal portion ownership.

“I am afraid you have a hearsay problem”, I tell the shocked client.

eager person
This “dying declaration” always seems to benefit the client immensely.

There is some room for dying declarations to be admitted in court.

First, the person has to understand they are about to die when the statement is made.

Second, it is only admissible to prove the client is guilty of murder of the decedent.

Third, if proven, the client is not going to inherit in any case because of the rule that says slayers do not inherit. axe murderer

Fourth, I refer this person out to a firm that handles criminal law.

A good example of what might be admitted against the client was John Lennon’s exclamation “I’m Shot!” if offered in the prosecution of Mark Chapman. john lennon

Faced with this and other evidence, Chapman plead guilty to 2nd Degree Murder and is still in prison.

So friends and neighbors let’s go with what is on paper and not a dying declaration. If admitted at all, it might mean you are going to jail.

The Forgotten Child

Last willFor some reason I have a run of kids that seem to have been forgotten during the first will preparation interview of late.

The client comes in, even fills out the form about who their children are, then we have the meeting, discuss what is their desires, and a first draft is sent out US Mail as a hard copy.

Then something happens. Perhaps it is guilt. Perhaps they just remember that long ago in another state another child was born, but the fates separated them somehow. An excited call comes to the office to amend to include this flesh and blood so long ignored, often with stressful questions as to what trouble this means. Shakespeare missed a good plot, but I believe there was a child of this nature that undermined everything in the musical “Camelot”.

This happens so often there is actually legislation about children who are forgotten. They are called “pretermitted”. This forgotten child is due whatever percentage he or she would have received had the parent died without a will.

The most recent iteration of our statute has the pretermitted claim limited to children born after the will is signed. Still, there will be a fight in any case.

Death is a good time to remember children, particularly in a will. You may have cause to disinherit, but do so expressly, lest that Iago child of your youth return to spoil Othello’s estate.

The Existentialist Parent Names Her Child

child with tatoosI have decided the spate of new and inventive names which process through my practice must be the desire to ensure ones child is a unique individual, not part of the faceless masses living an existentialist challenge, otherwise lost in an vast and uncaring world, but taking solace in the reality his mother gave him a name that no one will forget, and at the same time cannot spell but phonetically.

I see divorces, custody cases and wills where I have to speak with a straight face about children named “Breeze”, “Shady” or the worst: “Swastika”.

Then I have to spell the names too, which are also cast forever in the new and inventive spelling the parents come up with shortly after the birth. Jane becomes “Jeayne”, Richard becomes “Reshard”, and Sally becomes “Saily”.

Whatever happened to names that evoked love and caring like those of my grandparents generation: Clara, Martha, and Lenore or strength and morality like Stephan, Ralph or James?

Some names seem to be drawn from the Presidents; Madison, Jefferson, and one client whose last named happened to be Lincoln, well, you know.

Media plays a huge role. After Star Wars was released in 1977 all kinds of “Leah’s” and “Luke’s” were named. No “Darth’s” I am aware of, nor “Chewbacca”, but a few “Hans” have crossed my desk, but then that is a strong European name in any case. Besides, I think Harrison Ford played a man with the shortened version “Han”. His mother was an existentialist too.

Then there is gender shifting. My grandfathers first name was Leslie, which was popular in 1905 for men, yet when when my cousin was born in the 1960’s she was given that name as it was popular for girls. “Taylor” is a name I see often and have to ask the client, “girl or boy?”

Finally no one uses a last name anymore. “Hi, I am Jim” is the introduction, rather than “Hi, I am James Smith, it is a pleasure to meet you”. Formal greetings are apparently as out of style as anything traditional.

Fortunately the law allows for the existentialist child to change his name in a District Court action after turning 18. This is so common I believe there are forms available at the courts themselves. Perhaps Swastika will change his name to something less political, like Adolf.

The Super Will

Red S

When one dies, one leaves behind two kinds of property: Probate Property, and Non-Probate Property. The SuperWill Statute can blur this distinction and the only kryptonite which can weaken the will are contained in exceptions buried deep in the Code that spawned this hero to some, foe to others.

Probate property is that which is controlled by the will of our departed. The most common example is the house he lived in. Non-probate property is that which, by contract, avoids the probate process and goes directly to those who are designated as beneficiaries payable on death. The most common example is a bank account with a payable on death or joint tenancy with right of survivorship.

But lo- what if we make that contract, perhaps even in a trust with your spouse, then later make a will that says something different about the same property? What if you don’t even know the SuperWill statute exists? Worse, what if you decide to rely on it but are not aware of the limitations on its use?

Lying underneath the surface of many wills is a reference to re-directing property that was non-probate, and suddenly becomes probate, often without a lot of forethought. A recent Supreme Court decision  in our state strongly suggests one can undo the intent of a trust one may have made with a predeceased spouse just by writing a new will. After reading the decision I can say this is not going to happen every time.

Like the man of steel, the Superwill statute is not something to mess with unless you have your own member of the Justice League evaluate what you are doing. The estate planning forms you may get from a paid or unpaid source are not members of the Justice League. After reading the aforementioned case, I am not sure even the new licensed legal technicians Washington now allows have membership.

Like Superman the SuperWill can change everything, or not, and knowing what you are doing means everything.

The Doctrine of Virtual Representation Can’t Save The Farm

Sorry, but this does not mean they have passed a law which allows the client to log on to an interactive website and have a virtual lawyer who does whatever you tell him. Instead the concept predates the internet by centuries and means you are stuck with the decisions of those who came before you were born.

The Doctrine of Virtual Representation is a common law concept which means what we do today about our property can bind our heirs; both those that have been born or are yet to be born.

Imagine the chaos if we lacked this rule. Generations who come after decide they were not adequately represented in the deeds Grandpa did, and sue the estate for a larger share.

I had a great-grandfather who lost the ranch in a poker game. There was a divorce. How would it be if I now decided Great-grandma didn’t get enough out of her husband for that folly when the decree entered? So I look up his descendants and sue them?

Nope. Better to just get in your old truck and head on down the highway to the future, and forget about the past. What is done is done.

Dog Trusts

We are so wealthy we leave our money to our pets when we die. Washington is one of 46 states and the District of Columbia at last count that expressly allow people to erect trusts for animals. This is not just for dogs or cats, the statute allows a person to leave a trust for the benefit of any non-human animal as long as it has a vertebrae.

So dont try to sneak in a worm trusts, do you hear?

The Settlor doesn’t even have to have any particular animals in mind when the trust is drafted. I was briefly associated with one trust where the old fella had a large tract of land near the mountains during his life and left the whole thing to the woodland creatures that lived there, so they would have a refuge for as long as the trust could last, which according to our Rule Against Perpetuities is 150 years.

But the Rule of Ugly Facts intervened to shorten it’s life dramatically. The Woodland Creature Trust immediately ran into trouble as it didnt have a person or society lined up to take care of it, pay the taxes and insurance or otherwise protect the trust. Several nature societies were approached but there were no takers. It looked like the Trust would fail, and the land be sold off.

Of course if this were a Disney film the woodland creatures would all speak English, and a badger like individual who is also a licensed member of the bar would file an action entitled Bambi et. al. vs. Woodland Creature Trust in our Superior Court. The nadir moment of the film would feature the human vertebrae on the bench ruling against the non-human vertebrae and sending the human vertebrae tax collector out to auction off the woodland for back taxes.

Disney’s formula film always has a villain with a pencil thin mustache ( c.f. Jaffar in Aladdin or John Clayton in Tarzan ) and the tax collector would look like either. Of course the cute Disney non-human vertebrae would somehow prevail and we would all leave the theater humming the theme song.

But this scenario belongs in Never Never Land. My last experience with the case at bar was to be fired by the decedants sisters because I had to tell them the only way for this woodland trust to work was to sell some of it to a developer to finance the thing. But that is not what our brother wanted….

Why is it people expect they can have at death what they cannot have during life?

The Rule in Shelley’s Case

Mary Shelley has nothing to do with this but it is something of a Frankenstein’s monster, because it’s the kind of law that keeps the owner of land from doing with his farm or house or beach property what he thought he did.

First recorded as a doctrine in the case of Wolfe vs Shelley in Elizabethan England (1581)  the rule transmutes the grant of a life estate to a person, remainder to his lawful heirs to fee simple absolute in the holder of the life estate. In other words he holds the whole of the title, and not just for his life.

Say a farmer grants his son a life estate in the farm, remainder to his heirs, meaning his grandchildren. The Rule in Shelley’s Case makes this grant a grant to the son without restrictions as to what he can do with the land. If he sells off the farm to Wal-Mart there isnt anything the farmer or the grandchildren can do about it.

It was the rule in Washington until 1961 when judges began it’s erosion in cases of interpretation of wills. By 1995 the whole thing was over, the legislature abolishing the rule for all transfers whether the farmer is alive or dead.

Apparently the orginal idea was to favor the passing of land by inheritance, rather than gift. Judging by the amount of asphalt covering prime bottom land in the Puget Sound basin I think we need to return to the Rule and Shelleys case, and its closely regarded cousin, the Doctrine of Worthier Title.

It certainly would make the practice of law more fun to have all these ancient terms to throw around in court and less parking lots here in our lovely state. Instead the Middle Ages finally ended in the second decade of my law practice and we are instead trapped in some dismal economic model that allows all property to go to the highest bidder.