Stepchildren as Beneficiaries of Wrongful Death Claims

Posted Thursday, April 19, 2012 by John S. Palmer.

The Washington Supreme Court has ruled that stepchildren remain statutory beneficiaries under the wrongful death statute, even if the decedent’s marriage to the stepchildren’s biological parent was previously terminated by the death of the biological parent.

Washington’s wrongful death statute provides that when the death of a person is caused by the wrongful act of another, the decedent’s personal representative may maintain an action for damages against the person causing the death. Such an action 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 the case decided by the court, the stepchildren’s father, Carl Blaschka, married Audrey Blessing in 1964. Carl and Audrey remained married until Carl’s death in 1994. Audrey subsequently remarried but died in a 2007 accident; her estate initiated a wrongful death action against the other driver.

The Blaschka children filed a petition seeking a determination that they remained Audrey’s “stepchildren” for purposes of the wrongful death action. One of Audrey’s children, as Personal Representative of her estate, opposed the petition, arguing that their legal status as stepchildren terminated upon Carl’s death in 1994.

The court noted that the wrongful death statute does not define the term “stepchildren”, so it looked at precedent in which the term has been defined for other purposes, and relied heavily on a 1950 case holding that children retain their status as “stepchildren” for certain tax purposes even when the stepparent outlives the children’s biological parent.

The estate argued that this precedent should not apply because Audrey remarried after Carl’s death, but the court found her remarriage had no bearing on its analysis. The estate also argued that under Washington’s family law statutes, a stepparent’s obligation to pay child support for a stepchild ceases upon termination of the marriage by divorce, legal separation, or death. But the court found that unpersuasive as well, noting that it merely demonstrated that the legislature could have placed similar limits on a step-relationship for purposes of a wrongful death action, but did not do so.

Although it apparently had no direct bearing on the court’s decision, the opinion notes that Audrey remained close with her stepchildren after their father’s death, and provided for them in her Will. However, the court noted that questions about the nature and quality of a stepchild’s relationship with the decedent are factors to consider in determining the stepchild’s share of any damages recovered.

Estate of Blessing, Docket #85944-2, Decided April 5, 2012

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