Young Widow Faces Label as Financial Abuser

     (CN) – A woman who was found to have financially exploited her much older husband before his death may be disinherited, the sharply divided Washington Supreme Court ruled.
     In 1996, three years after the death of his first wife, Dr. James Haviland was a patient at a Washington hospital that employed 35-year-old nurse Mary Burdon.
     When the hospital discharged the 85-year-old Haviland, he and Burdon started dating, and he agreed to pay $100,000 toward Burdon’s education and an additional $300,000 to $350,000 for Burdon to use as a “nest egg.”
     Haviland and Burdon married one year later, and the Seattle doctor revised his will four times by 2006, leaving his new wife his entire estate. During those years, Haviland also made large gifts of cash to her family members, and transferred other sizable amounts from a couple’s checking account to his wife’s personal account.
     Haviland died in late 2007, suffering from advanced dementia. Three of his four children challenged his will the following year and claimed that the past criminal convictions of their step-mother, Mary Haviland, made her ineligible to act as a personal representative of the estate.
     The trial court found that the $55,000 in specific bequests from Haviland’s estate, coupled with the repeated transfers to Mary, left it with a value of negative $45,834.48. Determining that it was the product of undue influence by Mary, the judge invalidated the will.
     The Court of Appeals affirmed the decision in 2011, but the estate administrator brought a new challenge in light of 2009 amendments to Washington slayer statue that aimed to prevent financial abusers from benefiting from a death.
     The trial court denied the petition, refusing to retroactively apply the law.
     This time, the Washington Court of Appeals reversed, ruling that the estate administrator triggered the statute in petitioning to declare Mary Haviland as a financial abuser after the law was revised. It directed the trial court to determine if the trial court findings of financial exploitation are enough to label Mary Haviland as a financial abuser.
     The Washington Supreme Court affirmed Thursday with a 5-4 vote.
     “Here, the abuser statutes intend to regulate the receipt of benefits, not the financial abuse itself,” Chief Justice Barbara Madsen wrote for the majority. “Thus, despite the fact that abuse occurred prior to the amendments at issue, the triggering event is the attempt by the abuser to receive property or any other benefit from the estate of the abused person.”
     “Nor is Ms. Haviland faced with new consequences for past actions. Prior to Ms. Haviland’s conduct, financial abuse of a vulnerable adult was regulated by the vulnerable adult protection act,” he added.
     The dissent, written by Justice pro tempore Tom Chambers, argued that Haviland’s death is the real triggering event for the law.
     “Something new happened in Laws of 2009, chapter 525, and if it is applied to Mary Haviland, something new will happen to her,” Chambers wrote. “She will be disinherited; a fact she could not reasonably have ·anticipated on the sad death of her husband.”
     “The majority holds that the evil the legislature intends to avoid is the passing of an estate to a financial abuser,” he added. “And there is textual support for the majority’s conclusion. But that is a bloodless reason to pass legislation. It is plain to me that the true evil the legislature wished to end was elder abuse, not inheritance by unworthy heirs.”

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