Tragedy Times Two: When a Police Officer Dies in the Line of Duty, Without a Will

By January 17, 2017 No Comments

On a cold night at the end of November, Tacoma Police Officer Jake Gutierrez was shot and killed while responding to a domestic violence call. If you live in the Puget Sound region, you likely remember learning about the tragic events of that night on the local news. Another officer shot. An additional, also tragic, element of the story is that Officer Gutierrez died without a Will.

Officer Gutierrez was engaged to be married, but, as his fiancé told KOMO news, he had delayed making a Will. Now, his estate is likely headed toward a more complicated probate than would have been necessary had he made a Will.

As Stacey wrote in her “No Will” blog post series, the distribution of an estate when you do not have a Will may be very different from what you want. In Washington, the estates of people who die without a Will are distributed pursuant to our state’s intestacy statute, RCW 11.04.105.

An unmarried romantic partner does not receive any share of a person’s estate under the intestacy statute. However, case law in Washington has developed a doctrine that allows a partner in a “committed intimate relationship” to claim a quasi-community property interest in their deceased partner’s estate. While this may provide some relief for unmarried partners when their loved one dies, from a practical standpoint, making such a claim will likely involve either obtaining a court order authorizing the distribution or forging an agreement between the surviving partner and the deceased partner’s family pursuant to the Trust and Estate Dispute Resolution Act (“TEDRA”). None of this would be necessary, of course, if the deceased partner had executed a valid Will naming their partner as a beneficiary.

Estate planning documents are essential for unmarried couples who wish their partners to receive a portion of their estates or to serve as a fiduciary if they are incapacitated. Officer Gutierrez’s situation is doubly tragic in that, as a first responder, he could have obtained estate planning documents through the Washington First Responder Will Clinic, an important resource for first responders in our state. I have volunteered for this Clinic and truly appreciate the remarkable services being provided to first responders. All first responders should have estate planning documents. If you have a first responder in your life, encourage them to contact an attorney or contact the clinic to schedule an appointment.

Photo credit: Liz West on Flickr

This post is for informational purposes and does not contain or convey legal advice. The information herein should not be used or relied upon in regard to any particular facts or circumstances without first consulting with an attorney.

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