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In re Estate of Wright

December 8, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Dwyer, A.C.J.


Judith Patterson claims that she is the daughter of former Exxon president and chairman Myron A. Wright and a woman, not his wife, with whom he had a love affair long ago. Based on this claim, Patterson petitioned the superior court for a determination that she is a beneficiary of the estate of Josephine Wright, Myron Wright's widow. Josephine Wright died testate, leaving a will that devised a portion of her residuary estate to the "lawful descendants" of Mr. Wright. The personal representative of Josephine Wright's estate, Janet Rosa, opposed Patterson's petition, contending that Josephine Wright's use of the term "lawful descendants" demonstrated her intent to limit her bequest to those of Myron Wright's children and their offspring born to legally married parents. The superior court agreed and dismissed Patterson's petition. Patterson appeals, raising two questions as yet unaddressed by Washington's courts: may the use of the term "lawful descendants" in a will manifest the intent on the part of a testatrix to limit a class gift to children of married parents and, if so, does it violate any applicable constitutional provision for probate courts to give effect to such intent? Answering the first question in the affirmative and the second question in the negative, we affirm the judgment of the superior court.


Patterson's mother, Ethel Williams, gave birth to Patterson in 1956, naming her Judy Diane Bryant (Bryant being Williams's maiden name). When Patterson was born, Williams was married to Robert Harris, and went by the name Ethel Harris. Soon after Patterson's birth, Williams put her up for adoption. Patterson was adopted and raised by Williams's acquaintance, Sarah Sue Adams, and her husband, George Adams.

The Adamses did not inform Patterson of her natural parents' identities. As an adult, while attempting to discover the names of her biological parents, Patterson became convinced that her biological father was a man named David Townsend, one of Ethel Williams's ex-husbands. Williams learned of Patterson's belief regarding her paternity and contacted Patterson to inform her that, while she was indeed Patterson's mother, Townsend was not Patterson's father.

Williams told Patterson that her biological father was a man that Williams had known only as "M.A. Wright," with whom she had engaged in a brief love affair in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1955. Williams could recount little about M.A. Wright, but told Patterson that she believed that he had worked for the Humble Oil Company and that he had been a friend of numerous prominent oilmen and industrialists whom she claimed to have met in Tulsa at the time, including J. Paul Getty and Howard Hughes. According to Williams, M.A. Wright left Tulsa when he discovered that she was pregnant with Patterson. Williams asserted that M.A. Wright later tried to send her checks, oil deeds, and other valuable papers, but that her mother and aunt stole them from her.

Based on Williams's story, Patterson contacted Myron Wright by telephone at his Exxon office in 1990. The content of this and subsequent conversations between Patterson and Myron Wright is disputed, but the parties agree that Patterson repeatedly called Wright, that Patterson relayed Williams's claims about Patterson's paternity to Wright, and that Wright denied being Patterson's father.

Mryon Wright died testate in 1992, leaving a will executed that year, approximately two years after Patterson first contacted him claiming to be his daughter. His will was probated in Texas. Patterson, at the time going by the name Judith Diane Walker, entered an appearance in the Texas probate proceeding and filed a "Claim on the Estate" of Myron Wright. Patterson requested that the court recognize her as a natural heir of Myron Wright, and award her a "just and equitable division" of his estate. The only evidence entered in support of Patterson's paternity, upon which she based her claim, was the story that Patterson had been told by Williams.*fn1

Josephine Wright, serving as executrix of Myron Wright's estate, opposed Patterson's attempt to intervene in the probate, denied that Patterson was Myron Wright's daughter, and denied that Patterson had any right to recover as an heir of Myron Wright's estate. Myron Wright's will defined his "issue" as his "lawful descendants." The will also specified that Myron Wright's "only issue living" were his "daughter, Judith Wright Reid, and her child, Laura Reid." The will also expressly distinguished "issue" from "heirs at law," or those persons who would be entitled to inherit under the laws of intestacy. Finally, the will expressly provided that adopted persons were to be considered the "lawful descendants" of their adopting parents and the adopting parents as the ancestors of those adopted. Patterson was nowhere mentioned in Myron Wright's will.

It soon became clear that Patterson's attorney in the Texas probate proceeding was not actually admitted to practice law in Texas. Upon discovering this, the Texas court struck all of Patterson's pleadings in the matter. Patterson filed no further claims on Myron Wright's estate.

Approximately 12 years after the death of Myron Wright, Josephine Wright died in Washington state. She also left a will disposing of her estate, much of which had passed to her by devise from the estate of her late husband. Josephine Wright's will was identical in many respects to that of Myron Wright. The will identified Josephine Wright's living issue by name, and specified that "[r]eferences to 'issue' mean a lawful descendant or lawful descendants in any degree of the ancestor designated." The will also expressly distinguished "issue" from "heirs at law." Also, as in Myron Wright's will, Josephine Wright's will expressly provided that an adopted child was the "lawful descendant" of the adopting parents. The will gifted two-thirds of Josephine Wright's residuary estate to the "issue" of Myron Wright. The will was entered into probate in the King County Superior Court in July 2004.

In January 2007, after the bulk of Josephine Wright's estate had been distributed, Patterson filed a petition to recover under the will pursuant to the Trust and Estate Dispute Resolution Act (TEDRA).*fn2 The petition sought a determination that Myron Wright was Patterson's father and that, as such, Patterson was entitled to recover as a beneficiary of Josephine Wright's will.

The personal representative of the estate answered and opposed Patterson's TEDRA petition, filing numerous documents as supporting evidence for the proposition that neither of the Wrights had accepted that Patterson was Myron Wright's biological daughter and that Josephine Wright, specifically, had demonstrated her intent to prevent Patterson from inheriting by specifying that only "lawful descendants" of either her or Myron Wright-those descendants born to married parents-would be entitled to inherit from the residuary of her estate. Myron Wright's daughter, Judith Reid, separately filed an answer opposing Patterson's TEDRA petition.

Based on the pleadings filed and after a hearing, the superior court commissioner dismissed Patterson's petition. Patterson moved for reconsideration of this decision, which the commissioner denied. Patterson then sought revision of the commissioner's order before a judge of the superior ...

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