What is the “Dead Man’s Statute” and Why You Should Create an Estate Plan

You might think it is enough to tell your loved ones what you would like them to inherit from you, but your statements alone are not enough, and here is why:

The Dead Man’s Statute, RCW 5.60.030, is designed to prevent interested parties from testifying against the decedent’s estate about interactions they had with the deceased person. The rationale behind this rule is that “since a decedent’s lips are sealed by death, a survivor’s lips are sealed by law.” In essence this rule disables somebody from going to court and saying “Hey, this dead guy told me he wanted me to inherit his car and all his diamonds!” There are three elements to this statute that have to be present in the facts at hand in order for this rule to apply: 1) interested party, 2) testimony, and 3) transaction.

What classifies an ‘interested party’ you might ask? In short, an interested party is anybody who stands to gain or lose as a result of the litigation. For example, the daughter of a deceased mother cannot testify in court that her mother told her she could inherit her vintage engagement ring. However, her friend could testify because the friend presumably has nothing to lose or gain from the outcome of the case. To expand on this definition, the individual will only be characterized as ‘interested’ if his or her interest is “present, certain, and vested at the time of trial.” A classic example of this was in Adams Marine Service Inc., when a man who previously owned stock that could have been affected by the outcome of the case was found not to be an interested party because he sold the stock before the trial commenced.  Adams Marine Service Inc. v. Fishel, 42 Wash. 2d 555, 257 P.2d 203 (1953).

The second element of the Dead Man’s Statute is that only evidence presented in the form of testimony is prohibited. Therefore, the statute does not apply to documents of any sort, unless of course the written document is a replacement for a live testimony, such as an affidavit. Any documents written or executed by the deceased will most likely be admitted as evidence.

The final element of the Dead Man’s Statute involves what is called a “test of transaction.” The basic premise behind this test is whether the decedent, if still alive, could contradict the witness with his or her own knowledge. Therefore, statements of fact will usually not be accepted, but a witness’s feelings or impressions are generally allowed because it would be very difficult to successfully contradict somebody’s own feelings.

Given the stringent nature of the Dead Man’s Statute, it is imperative to create an estate a plan regardless of your financial worth or age. Without one, the State dictates the distribution of your estate, and all too often deserving family members are left empty-handed.  It is not enough to tell your loved ones what you want them to have from your estate. It is advised to consult a professional when handling your estate and creating a will so that your wishes are fulfilled when you are no longer in control of your personal affairs.

This is not intended to be considered legal advice, and if you have specific questions you should talk to an estate planning attorney.

Larissa Chan has been an attorney with Reed Longyear for three years now. She focuses her practice on personal and estate planning, trust administration and probate. You can contact her at (206) 624-6271 or via email at lchan@reedlongyearlaw.com.