Community Property Agreement Does Not Conflict With Will

Elder Law Answers case summary.Although a community property agreement and a will had different survivor periods, the Washington Court of Appeals reads the two documents together. In Radliff v. Schmidt (Wash. Ct. App. No. 85041-5-I, July 10, 2023).

Herbert Royster married Eileen Royster, who had a son, Jeffrey Radliff. The couple executed wills that both left Mr. Radliff a significant amount and formed a community property agreement (CPA). Both the wills and the CPA had survivor periods for the surviving spouse to inherit, but they were for different durations: four months for the wills and 30 days for the CPA.

Mrs. Royster predeceased her husband. After his wife’s death, Mr. Royster changed his will to give Mr. Radliff only $1,000. Seventy-five days after the death of his wife, Mr. Royster also passed away. This placed his death after the CPA’s 30-day period but before the will’s four-month period.

The trial court ruled in favor of the son, finding an irreconcilable conflict between the wills and CPA’s survivorship clauses. The personal representative of Mr. Royster appealed.

The appellate court considers whether the documents can be construed to avoid conflict.

The son argued that the court should read the wills and CPA together and conclude that the two different survivorship provisions created a patent ambiguity as a matter of law. The opinion he cited, In Re Estates of Wahl, fails to support this argument because the Wahl case did not address the existence of an ambiguity.

A general rule of contract interpretation states that the court should read a contract as a whole to avoid ambiguity. The CPA contains a disclaimer provision, allowing the surviving spouse to forfeit their interest. The CPA’s survivorship provision applies differently if the spouse accepts or relinquishes their interest. Thirty days after his wife’s death, the CPA vested, giving Mr. Royster the property.

Since no patent or irreconcilable ambiguity exists between the CPA and wills, the appellate court reverses and remands this case for a judgment in favor of the personal representative.

Because resolving the ambiguity question benefits the estate of Mrs. Royster, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in awarding Mr. Radliff attorneys fees. The appellate court also grants attorneys fees to the personal representative as it resolved the dispute in his favor.

Read the full opinion.