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In Re Estate of Martin Little (Wa. Ct. of App., No. 54647-3-I, June 6, 2005)

An estate can be reopened ten years after it was closed because the executor did not notify the heirs of the decedent's death.

Martin Little died in 1992. Mr. Little had nieces and nephews, but he left his estate to John Vannoy, a friend, who was also the executor. Mr. Vannoy published notice of the death in two local papers, but he did not notify Mr. Little's nieces and nephews of the death. He petitioned to admit the will for probate, and the petition listed only Mr. Vannoy as an heir. The estate was closed in 1995.

In 2001, the nieces and nephews discovered Mr. Little had died. Three years later, they petitioned the court to reopen probate.

The trial court ordered the estate reopened, appointed a disinterested third party as personal representative, and ordered the representative to send notice of probate to the heirs. Mr. Vannoy appealed, arguing that the heirs could not contest the will because such claims must be made within four months of the probate. He also argued that he did not have to provide evidence of his due diligence in finding the heirs; rather, the heirs had to provide evidence of how he could have found them.

The Court of Appeals of Washington affirms, holding that when notice is not given to heirs, a completed estate will be reopened unless the executor demonstrates that the names and addresses of the heirs were not reasonably ascertainable through the exercise of due diligence. In addition, the court rules that because the heirs are only asking for probate to be reopened, not contesting the will, the claim is not time barred.