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In re Estate of Reid

Court of Appeals of Washington, Division 2

August 8, 2017

In the Matter of the Estate of DEBORAH E. REID, Deceased.

          WORSWICK, J.

         Brandon Saludares is the biological child of Deborah Reid. When he was two years old, he was adopted by Reid's parents. Reid subsequently had two more children. After Reid died, her estate secured a settlement from her medical providers. Saludares sought a share of the settlement proceeds as Reid's child. He now appeals from a superior court order granting Reid's younger children's motion for summary judgment and ruling that Saludares was not Reid's statutory beneficiary for the purposes of the wrongful death claim.

         Saludares argues that (1) despite his adoption, he remains a child of Reid as contemplated by the wrongful death statute, (2) the adoption decree did not terminate the parent-child relationship between himself and Reid, (3) judicial estoppel operates to make him a statutory beneficiary, and (4) the superior court erred by entering an order approving distribution of the wrongful death settlement proceeds without holding an evidentiary hearing to determine the distribution between beneficiaries.

         In the published portion of this opinion, we hold that the right for a child to recover as a statutory beneficiary in a wrongful death claim is extinguished by the child's adoption. In the unpublished portion of this opinion, we further hold that Reid voluntarily relinquished her parental rights by consenting to Saludares's adoption and effectively terminated the parent-child relationship, and that judicial estoppel does not operate to make Saludares a statutory beneficiary. Consequently, we affirm the superior court's orders.


         Reid gave birth to Saludares in 1982 when she was 17 years old. Two years later, Reid's parents adopted Saludares, with Reid's consent. Reid later gave birth to two other children- Laurenne and Dillon.[1] In 2008, Reid passed away as a result of an opiate overdose.

         Reid's estate filed a wrongful death action in 2011, claiming professional negligence against the providers who prescribed Reid pain medication. The action named Laurenne, Dillon, and Saludares as potential beneficiaries. The defendants in the action agreed to pay $850, 000 as part of a settlement agreement in 2016. The superior court approved the settlement and ordered that the proceeds be retained in an interest bearing trust account pending proceedings to determine how the proceeds should be divided.

         Saludares, Laurenne, and Dillon filed cross motions for summary judgment on the question of whether Saludares was eligible to receive a portion of the proceeds. The superior court ruled that Saludares's adoption terminated his status as Reid's child and, consequently, entered an order granting Dillon and Laurenne's motion and denying Saludares's. The order stated:

Brandon Saludares, a child born to Deborah E. Reid, who was adopted by others prior to Deborah E. Reid's death is not a statutory beneficiary under the terms of RCW 4.20.020, the Washington wrongful death statute, and is therefore not entitled to a share of the wrongful death recovery made on behalf of decedent.

         Clerk's Papers (CP) at 255. Saludares appeals.


         Statutory Analysis

         Saludares argues that his adoption had no effect on his status as Reid's child for purposes of Washington's wrongful death statute, RCW 4.20.020. He contends that "child, " as used in RCW 4.20.020, means any biological child of the decedent, and therefore, the superior court erred by ruling that Saludares is not a statutory beneficiary because of his adoption. We disagree.

         Statutory interpretation involves questions of law that we review de novo. In re Estate of Blessing, 174 Wn.2d 228, 231, 273 P.3d 975 (2012). When engaging in statutory interpretation, we endeavor to determine and give effect to the legislature's intent. Blessing, 174 Wn.2d at 231. In determining the legislature's intent, we must first examine the statute's plain language. Blessing, 174 Wn.2d at 231. We discern plain meaning from the ordinary meaning of the language at issue, the context of the statute, related provisions, and the statutory scheme as a whole. Blessing, 174 Wn.2d at 231.

         If a statutory term is undefined, we may look to a dictionary for its ordinary meaning. Blessing, 174 Wn.2d at 231. When determining the meaning of undefined terms, courts "will consider the statute as a whole and provide such meaning to the term as is in harmony with other statutory provisions." Heinsma v. City of Vancouver, 144 Wn.2d 556, 564, 29 P.3d 709 (2001). '"Statutes must be interpreted and construed so that all the language used is given effect, with no portion rendered meaningless or superfluous.'" G-P Gypsum Corp. v. Dep't of Revenue, 169 Wn.2d 304, 309, 237 P.3d 256 (2010) (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting State v. J.P., 149 Wn.2d 444, 450, 69 P.3d 318 (2003)). We must also "avoid constructions that yield unlikely, absurd or strained consequences." Kilian v. Atkinson, 147 Wn.2d 16, 21, 50 P.3d 638 (2002).

         A. RCW 4.20.020 & Adoption Statutes

         RCW 4.20.020, in relevant part, specifies the beneficiaries of a wrongful death action as follows:

Every such action shall be for the benefit of the wife, husband, state registered domestic partner, child or children, including stepchildren, of the person whose death shall have been so caused.

(Emphasis added).

         Chapter 4.20 RCW does not define "child" or "children." While the dictionary may inform the plain meaning of a term, focus on the literal language of RCW 4.20.020 and the dictionary definitions[2] of "child" do not answer the essential question here: whether the legislature intended an adopted child to qualify as a statutory beneficiary of his biological mother for purposes of a wrongful death action.

         Consequently, we interpret RCW 4.20.020 in harmony with Washington's adoption statutes "to achieve a harmonious total statutory scheme . . . which maintains the integrity of the respective statutes." State ex rel. Peninsula Neighborhood Ass'n v. Dep't of Transp., 142 Wn.2d 328, 342, 12 P.3d 134 (2000) (alteration in original) (internal quotation marks omitted) ...

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