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In re Estate of Petelle

Court of Appeals of Washington, Division 1

May 6, 2019

In the Matter of the Estate of: MICHAEL A. PETELLE, Deceased.

          SMITH, J.

         After a six-year marriage, Michael Petelle filed a petition to dissolve his marriage to Michelle Ersfeld Petelle.[1] The parties executed a Separation Contract and CR2A Agreement (Separation Contract) that divided their assets into separate property and was a "final settlement of all their marital and property rights and obligations." Michael died intestate with no children before a dissolution decree was entered. Gloria Petelle, Michael's mother and heir, appeals the trial court's denial of her motion to terminate Michelle's right to intestate succession. We hold that the right to intestate succession is a marital right that, although derived from statute, arises because of a person's marital status. By agreeing to a final settlement of all marital rights, Michelle waived that right by signing the Separation Contract. Therefore, we reverse and remand with instructions for the trial court to grant Gloria's motion to terminate Michelle's right to intestate succession. We also deny Michelle's request for attorney fees on appeal and at the trial court.


         Michael and Michelle married on May 20, 2011. On January 27, 2017, Michael filed a petition for dissolution of their marriage. On February 14, 2017, Michael and Michelle executed the Separation Contract that divided their property and debts. Michael died on May 1, 2017, before a final decree of dissolution was entered. He did not have a will, and he had no children.

         Michelle submitted a petition for letters of administration, appointment of an administrator, an order of solvency, and nonintervention powers on May 10, 2017. Her petition did not disclose the existence of the dissolution action or the Separation Contract. Furthermore, she did not give notice to any of Michael's heirs of her intent to petition for nonintervention powers, as required by RCW 11.68.041. Gloria contested Michelle's nonintervention powers. The trial court revoked Michelle's nonintervention powers and required her to post a $100, 000 bond but allowed Michelle to continue as Michael's personal representative. It also awarded attorney fees to Gloria.

         Gloria then petitioned the court on September 27, 2017, for an order terminating Michelle's right to intestate succession. The trial court denied Gloria's motion but reserved ruling on Michelle's motion for attorney fees. Gloria appeals.


         Gloria argues that Michelle and Michael's marriage was defunct and, therefore, Michelle is not entitled to inherit as a "surviving spouse" because her marriage to Michael was "terminated" under RCW 11.02.005(17). We disagree.

         The meaning of a statute is a question of law that we review de novo. Durant v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 191 Wn.2d 1, 8, 419 P.3d 400 (2018). Our fundamental objective in determining what a statute means is to ascertain and carry out the legislature's intent. Durant. 191 Wn.2d at 8. "If the statute's meaning is plain on its face, then courts must give effect to its plain meaning as an expression of what the legislature intended." Durant. 191 Wn.2d at 8. The court may use a dictionary to discern the plain meaning of an undefined statutory term. Nissen v. Pierce County, 183 Wn.2d 863. 881. 357 P.3d 45 (2015V If, after consulting a dictionary, the statute is susceptible to more than one reasonable meaning, the statute is ambiguous and it is appropriate to use other statutory construction aids and examine the legislative history. Wriqlev v. State, 5 Wn.App. 2d 909, 924-25, 428 P.3d 1279 (2018). "The court has frequently looked to final bill reports as part of an inquiry into legislative history." State v. Bash, 130 Wn.2d 594, 601, 925 P.2d 978 (1996).

         RCW 11.04.015(1)(c) states that a "surviving spouse" shall receive "[t]here-quarters of the net separate estate if there is no surviving issue, but the intestate is survived by one or more of his or her parents." RCW 11.02.005(17) describes when an individual does not qualify as a "surviving spouse":

"Surviving spouse" or "surviving domestic partner" does not include an individual whose marriage to or state registered domestic partnership with the decedent has been terminated, dissolved, or invalidated-----A decree of separation that does not terminate the status of spouses or domestic partners is not a dissolution or invalidation for purposes of this subsection.

(Emphasis added.) "Terminated" is not defined in the statute, but the dictionary defines "terminate" as "to bring to an ending or cessation in time, sequence, or continuity: close ... to form the ending or conclusion of... to end formally and definitely (as a pact, agreement, contract)." Webster's Third New International Dictionary 2359 (2002). Using this definition of "terminated," the term is susceptible to two or more meanings because it is not clear what action is required to "terminate" a marriage or domestic partnership. Therefore, it is necessary to consult the legislative history of the statute to ascertain the legislature's intent.

         RCW 11.02.005(17) was revised in 2008 as part of a broader bill expanding domestic rights and responsibilities of all couples recognized as domestic partners under Washington's State Registered Domestic Partnerships Act, chapter 26.60 RCW. H.B. 3104, 60th Leg., Reg. Sess. (Wash. 2008). The statute's references to domestic partners and domestic partnerships and the word "terminated" were added as part of this revision. Based on the final bill report, "terminated" refers to a process for ending a domestic partnership with the Secretary of State. See Final B. Rep. on Second Substitute H.B. 3104, 60th Leg., Reg. Sess. (Wash. 2008). Contrary to Gloria's contention, the legislature did not add "terminated" to describe a marriage that is defunct. Because Michelle was not in a domestic partnership with ...

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