The Court of Appeals recently declined to make a bright line rule about conflicting presumptions in Drown v. Boone, NO. 67255-0-1, (Ct. App. Oct. 28, 2013).
Randall Langeland and Sharon Drown were in a committed intimate relationship from 1983 until 2009 when Langeland died. His personal representative inventoried proceeds from a software company Langeland founded in 1994, a house that he purchased with Drown in 1999, and a 36-foot sailboat purchased in 1998 as Langeland’s property.
Boone, Langeland’s only heir, stipulated they were in a committed intimate relationship, but contended the court should rely on the presumption of correctness of the inventory and Drown has the burden of proving otherwise. Drown argued the court should presume joint ownership of assets acquired while she and Langeland cohabited and Boone had the burden of proving otherwise by clear and convincing evidence. The court agreed with Boone and applied the dead man’s statute to limit Drown’s testimony. Drown could not overcome the presumption, so the court awarded nearly all the assets to Boone.
The court noted there are two viewpoints about how to resolve conflicting presumptions.
Under the first approach the conflicting presumptions cancel each other. This is consistent with the Thayer “bursting bubble” theory applied in some jurisdictions. The second approach requires the court to determine which presumption should prevail based upon a variety of factors because some jurisdictions give different weight to different presumptions. Those factors may include public policy, logic, and an assessment of probabilities.
Washington cases have applied the Thayer theory to some, but not all, presumptions. The Uniform Rules of Evidence require the presumption with weightier policy reason be applied. The Federal Rules of Evidence do not address how to approach conflicting presumptions.
Washington has not adopted an evidence rule addressing presumptions. Division One noted that Washington cases have adopted presumptions for different reasons and differing policy strengths. Although the court declined to make a bright line rule, they picked the presumption that property acquired during a committed intimate relationship is jointly owned over the presumption of correctness for an estate inventory. It concluded this after examining the history and nature of the two presumptions and limited its holding to this case.
If you are going to argue one presumption should prevail over another you must convince the court that your presumption’s history and policy behind it is more important than the other. Then again, the court may just apply the Thayer theory and knockout both presumptions.