Definition: Deadman’s Statute

RCW 5.60.030 is a statute in Washington State, commonly called the deadman’s statute, which prevents certain people from testifying in court about transactions they had with (or statements made in their presence by) a person who is deceased — if the people testifying would be doing so for their own benefit. Consider the following scenario:

A testator decides to give $50,000 to his son to be used for a down payment for a house. He explains to him and his other two children that his will states that each of them will receive a gift of $100,000, and the money for the down payment for the son is to be an advance against his $100,000 gift. However, the testator never updates his will to reflect the $50,000 advance and dies years later. In the interim, the son who received the advance has a falling out with his two siblings. During probate, the two siblings contest the gift of $100,000 to their brother, but they are not allowed to testify about the conversation that all three of them had with their father because of the deadman’s statute.

The deadman’s statute is intended to prevent fraud. It is presumed that a person who stands to benefit legally and/or financially from their own testimony will give testimony solely in their own best interest and, because the other party to the statement or transaction is dead, it is nearly impossible to determine the truth of such testimony.

Note that in the context of a probate proceeding the statute does not prevent all testimony from an interested party about matters related to a will — only the statements and transactions of the deceased testator.

The deadman’s statute is a complex law, and it is often difficult to predict when (or exactly how) it might be applied. As a general rule, it is best to make a written record of all financial transactions and agreements with those you care about so that after you or the other party to the transaction dies, the survivor will be able to have the benefit of what was agreed while both of you were alive.