In the Witt case, the deceased's long time partner filed a creditor's claim in her late partner's probate holding that all the property was quasi-community property and therefore should go to her. The Personal Representative of the Estate denied the claim with a notice that any challenge to the denial must be made in 30 days. More than 30 days late, Witt filed a complaint against the Estate in Superior Court for Partition of real and personal property. The Estate moved for Summary Judgment to have the complaint dismissed on the basis that she had missed the thirty day window for making a challenge to the denial of her creditors' claim. The trial court declined to dismiss the action and the Estate appealed.
The Court of Appeals made on factual determination of whether the property in question would be covered by the quasi-community property rules that allow a court to treat property earned by either party during an intimate and committed relationship as analogous to community property earned during a marriage. It left that question to the trial court. But it did find that such a claim is really a challenge to the inventory of the Estate and not a claim for debt owed by the decedent and so isn't a creditor's claim and isn't subject to the creditor's claim time limits. The court acknowledged that Witt had initially brought a creditors claim but found that her having done so did not preclude from bringing a more proper claim at a later date. The court also went out of its way to make it clear that such a claim would need to be brought before the probate was closed or it would be barred.
The case provides some helpful guidance to both non-married partners who fail to do proper estate plans and personal representatives of their partner's estates about how these claims should be brought and the timelines that govern them. This was important because while the court has been consistent and often generous in awarding these claims on an equitable basis they have come before the court in a variety of manners leaving practitioner frequently perplexed about how to properly introduce such a claim and proper way to accept or reject such claims. As a practical matter, by channeling these claims in to the TEDRA process for challenging inventories the court has also created more generous timelines and enhanced incentives for resolving these disputes through alternative dispute resolution presumably with the hope of having more of these heavily fact intensive cases settled by the parties rather than litigated through the courts. It is also an important reminder to personal representative who are administering estates were such a claim is possible not to let estates linger open longer than necessary as it will increase the time that these challenges can be brought and to be very careful about making any preliminary distributions before closing the estate where any possible claim could be made by an unmarried partner.
Perhaps its best warning is that couples who are in long term, committed relationships are really best served and best taken care by careful planning before death, ideally including powers of attorney, co-habitation agreements, and wills that spell out what the plan is with regard to the creation of quasi-community property, who should be in charge of crucial life choices, and where assets should flow at death.
If you have lost a partner and want to better understand your possible rights to quasi-community property, or managing an estate that might be subject to such a claim, or are in an non-married committed relationship and want to plan to avoid this kind of potentially ugly and expensive mess at your death, please contact us to schedule a free half hour consultation at email@example.com or (206)459-1908.