Violent Heir May Not Disclaim Inheritance to Cheat Victim

APRIL 28, 1997 VOLUME 4, NUMBER 43

Phyllis Baird, a resident of Washington State, suffered from dementia. From 1988 until her death in 1994, she had a guardian appointed to handle her affairs. Initially, that guardian was Susan Saulsbury.

In November, 1992, almost exactly four years after she had become Ms. Baird’s guardian, Ms. Saulsbury married her ward’s adult son, James Baird. Just three months later, James Baird brutally assaulted his new wife, leaving her brain-injured and disfigured. Susan (Saulsbury) Baird filed a lawsuit against James Baird based on the injuries he inflicted, and criminal prosecution proceeded simultaneously.

In March, 1994, James Baird was convicted of assault and sentenced to 20 years in prison. On the same day as his conviction, he signed a document waiving “any and all interest” he might have in his mother’s estate, even though she was not yet dead. Apparently, Mr. Baird’s intention was to see to it that any money he might inherit from his mother in the future would go not to the wife he had brutalized, but to his two children from a prior marriage.

In October, 1994, Susan (Saulsbury) Baird’s claim against her husband was tried, resulting in a judgment of $2.75 million in her favor and against James Baird. One week later, James Baird declared bankruptcy, listing the debt to Susan as his principal obligation and assets of a few hundred thousand dollars.

Two months after James Baird declared bankruptcy, Phyllis Baird died. Her estate was valued at about $500,000.00, which would be split between James Baird and his sister Julie Breckenridge. If the document he signed six months earlier was effective, his share of his mother’s estate would go to his two children (one of them a minor); if the document was ineffective, his share would go to his bankruptcy estate, and 95% of it would then pass to the wife he had so viciously assaulted.

Under Washington (and Arizona) law, any person may disclaim the right to inherit from an estate. The concept arises from a common law notion that one can not be forced to accept a gift, and is often used in estate planning. A wealthy heir might, for instance, wish to disclaim an inheritance to permit her children to receive the money immediately and directly, without having to pass it through the wealthy heir’s estate and subject the funds to estate tax liability. The question in this case was whether such a disclaimer can be executed in advance of the inheritance, while the person from whom one might inherit is still living.

Washington’s Supreme Court ruled that James Baird’s attempt to get his mother’s estate into his childrens’ hands was ineffective. Since Phyllis Baird was not yet dead when her son executed the disclaimer, he must now receive the money, and his wife and victim will be the ultimate beneficiary.Estate of Phyllis Baird, Washington Supreme Court, April 3, 1997.

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