In Re Estate of Audrey Blessing: The court ruled where the parents are divorced, the stepchildren would be the beneficiaries of a wrongful death action.
Christina A. Meserve and Charles E. Szurszewski, Family Lawyers
Audrey Blessing was married to Carl Blaschka in 1964 and remained married to him until his death in 1994. Blessing remarried in 2002 and her third husband died in 2005. Blessing died in a 2007 car accident. Blessing and the Blaschka children maintained a close relationship and Blessing left a portion of her estate to the Blaschka children, whom she identified as stepchildren in her will.
In Re Estate of Audrey Blessing: Determining Statutory Beneficiaries
Blessing’s biological child and the personal representative of her estate brought a wrongful death action against the truck driver who caused the 2007 accident. The Blaschka children filed a petition under TEDRA, seeking a determination that they were entitled to participate as statutory beneficiaries in a wrongful death claim. The trial court found that the children were Blessing’s stepchildren under RCW 4.20.020. The Court of Appeals reversed and awarded the estate fees and costs. The Supreme Court granted the Blaschka children’s petition for review and reversed the Court of Appeals.
RCW 4.20.020 is the statute that identifies the beneficiaries of a wrongful death action. The statute provides that such actions may be maintained 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.”
In Re Estate of Audrey Blessing: Stepchildren as the Children of a Spouse or Former Spouse
While the estate argued that the children were only stepchildren until the marriage ended, the Supreme Court rejected that theory, and identified stepchildren as the children of a spouse or former spouse. The Supreme Court’s conclusion does not limit the definition of stepchildren to cases where the biological parent died. Presumably, this means that even where the parents have been divorced, the (former) stepchildren would still be the beneficiaries of a wrongful death action.
This cries out for a legislative fix, and the most obvious fix would be to have the statute define the stepchildren as the children of a current spouse, rather than the children of a former spouse.
Christina A. Meserve and Charles E. Szurszewski practice family law in Olympia, Washington with the law firm of Connolly Tacon & Meserve.
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