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AGO 1977 No. 22 - November 10, 1977
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Slade Gorton | 1969-1980 | Attorney General of Washington

OFFICES AND OFFICERS ‑- COUNTY ‑- CORONER ‑- TREASURER ‑- DECEDENTS ‑- ESCHEAT ‑- PROBATE OF CERTAIN DECEDENTS' ESTATES

The provisions of RCW 36.24.130 and 36.24.140 do not authorize a county to probate the estate of the person who has died without heirs or to place to the credit of the county other assets of the decedent except ". . . money or other property which may be found upon the dead body . . ."

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                                                               November 10, 1977

Honorable David S. McEachran
Prosecuting Attorney
Whatcom County
311 Grand Avenue
Bellingham, Washington 98225

                                                                                                                 Cite as:  AGO 1977 No. 22

Dear Sir:

            By letter previously acknowledged you requested our opinion on a question which we paraphrase as follows:

            Do the provisions of RCW 36.24.130 and 36.24.140 authorize a county to probate the estate of a person who has died without heirs or to place to the credit of the county other assets of the decedent except ". . . money or other property which may be found upon the dead body . . ."?

            We answer your question in the negative for the reasons set forth in our analysis.

                                                                     ANALYSIS

            Your question, basically, involves the relationship between the statutory functions of certain county officers and the statutory rights of the state under the laws of escheat in the case of persons dying without known heirs.

             [[Orig. Op. Page 2]]

            RCW 11.08.140 provides that:

            "Whenever any person dies, whether a resident of this state or not, leaving property subject to the jurisdiction of this state and without being survived by any person entitled to the same under the laws of this state, such property shall be designated escheat property and shall be subject to the provisions of RCW 11.08.140 through 11.08.280."

            RCW 11.08.150 then says that:

            "Title to escheat property, which shall include any intangible personalty, shall vest in the state at the death of the owner thereof."

            In implementation of the foregoing, RCW 11.08.160 provides that the state Department of Revenue,

            ". . . shall have supervision of and jurisdiction over escheat property and may institute and prosecute any proceedings deemed necessary or proper in the handling of such property, . . ."

            In addition, it is the duty of the department, under that same statute,

            ". . . to protect and conserve escheat property for the benefit of the permanent common school fund of the state . . ."1/

             The county's responsibilities regarding property of a deceased person, on the other hand, arise chiefly by virtue of the circumstances described in RCW 36.24.020-36.24.120 pertaining to coroners' inquests.2/ RCW 36.24.130 then provides that:

             [[Orig. Op. Page 3]]

            "The coroner must, within thirty days after the inquest upon a dead body, deliver to the countytreasurer any money or other property which may be found upon the body, unless claimed in the meantime by the legal representatives of the deceased.  If he fails to do so, the treasurer may proceed against the coroner to recover the same by a civil action in the name of the county."  (Emphasis supplied)3/

            RCW 36.24.140, in turn, requires that:

            "Upon the delivery of money to the treasurer, he shall place it to the credit of the county.  If it is property other than money, he shall, within thirty days, sell it at public auction, upon reasonable public notice, and place the proceeds to the credit of the county."

            Finally, RCW 36.24.150 provides that:

            "If the money in the treasury is demanded within six years by the legal representatives of the deceased, the treasurer shall pay it to them after deducting the fees and expenses of the coroner and of the county in relation to the matter, or the same may be so paid at any time thereafter, upon the order of the board of county commissioners of the county."

            From the foregoing statutory provisions, it is first apparent that whatever rights a county may have to personal property of a decedent are limited, literally, to that which  [[Orig. Op. Page 4]] is found upon the body and then only when death occurs under circumstances which give rise to an inquest.4/   It is also apparent that the rights of the county are secondary to those of the "legal representatives of the decedent."  RCW 36.24.130 and 36.24.150, supra.5/   On the other hand, the Department of Revenue's responsibilities (insofar as a person dying without heirs is concerned) are broad ‑ extending to all such decedents and to essentially all of their property and not merely to that found upon such decedent's person.  Actual succession to such property, however, normally follows the usual probate process detailed in Title 11 RCW, subject to the special provisions of chapter 11.08 RCW and, in particular, RCW 11.08.170 and 11.08.210.  This process may be initiated by "one or more principal creditors."  RCW 11.28.210(3). Accordingly, it is conceivable that a county, under appropriate circumstances, could thus initiate probate as a creditor.  See also, RCW 11.28.120(4).

            Nothing in Chapter 36.24 RCW, however, expands the latter possibility or gives the county a right to petition or act as administrator, or to succeed to property other than as creditor, except on a qualified basis in the case of that property described by RCW 36.24.130, supra, as ". . . money or other property which may be found upon the dead body."6/   Therefore, our direct answer to your question, as above paraphrased, is in the negative.  Neither RCW 36.34.130 nor RCW 36.24.140,supra, constitutes authority for a county either to initiate probate of the estate of a person who has died without heirs or to placeother assets of such a  [[Orig. Op. Page 5]] decedent (represented by such items as a safe deposit box key or checkbook found on the body) to the credit of the county.  Instead, the proper response by the county regarding such evidence of wealth beyond such assets is to notify the Department of Revenue which (as above explained) is responsible for the protection and conservation of such property.  See, also, RCW 11.08.200.  Any right of the state (by escheat) to cash or tangible personal property found upon the decedent must then, in our opinion, be reported in the manner and within the time limits provided for by RCW 36.24.130 and 36.24.150,supra.

            We trust the foregoing has been of assistance to you.

Very truly yours,

SLADE GORTON
Attorney General


L. E. (LEE) DREISBACH
Assistant Attorney General

                                                         ***   FOOTNOTES   ***

1/See also, RCW 11.08.185 through 11.08.260 regarding additional specific responsibilities of the department.

2/See also, RCW 68.08.010.

3/Whatever personal property is found upon the decedent must also be immediately listed with a duplicate of such list to be certified by the coroner and filed with the county auditor and with the original to be "kept as a public record at the morgue . . ."  RCW 68.08.040.

4/See also, RCW 36.24.180.

5/The words "legal representatives" ordinarily mean "executors and administrators."  German-American State Bank v. Godman, 83 Wash. 231, 235, 145 Pac. 222 (1915).  However, those terms may also mean, in a more general sense, the heirs of the decedent.  See, Black's Law Dictionary (Fourth Edition 1951), pp. 1041-1042.

6/The mere fact that a decedent's body comes into the custody of the coroner cannot effect constructive delivery to the county of contents of a safe deposit box or checking account since the requisite intent could not reasonably be attributed to the decedent under the circumstances.  See, generally, 38 Am.Jur.2d, Gifts, § 23, p. 826.

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