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The slayer rule, in the common law of inheritance, is a doctrine that prohibits inheritance by a person who murders someone from whom he or she stands to inherit (e.g., a murderer does not inherit from parents he or she killed). In calculating inheritance of the decedent's estate, the effect of the slayer rule was that the slayer would be treated as though he or she had predeceased the person who had been murdered, therefore his or her share of the estate would pass to his or her issue.
While convicting someone of the crime of murder requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt, the slayer rule applies to civil law, not criminal law, so it is only necessary to prove the wrongful killing by a preponderance of the evidence, as in a wrongful death claim. This means that even a slayer who is acquitted of the murder in criminal court can still be divested of the inheritance by the civil court administering the estate.
Statutory Response to Slayers
At common law, American courts used two different theories when dealing with early slayer cases. Some courts would disinherit the slayer because of the public policy principle that a slayer should not profit from his crime (No Profit theory).
No Profit Theory
In Mutual Life v. Armstrong, the first American case to consider the issue of whether a slayer could profit from his crime, the Court set forth the No Profit (the term "No Profit" theory is a term coined by legal scholar Adam D. Hansen in an effort to distinguish early common law cases that applied a similar outcome when dealing with slayers). public policy justification of slayer statutes saying: “It would be a reproach to the jurisprudence of the country if one could recover insurance money payable on the death of the party whose life he had feloniously taken.”
Other courts were reluctant to disinherit a slayer in absence of a legislatively codified statute directing the court to do so (Strict Construction theory).
Strict Construction Theory
The Strict Construction theory (the term "Strict Construction" theory is a term coined by legal scholar Adam D. Hansen in an effort to distinguish early common law cases that dealt applied a similar outcome when disinheriting slayers). originated from Judge John Clinton Gray’s dissent in Riggs v. Palmer. Judge Gray argued that the criminal law already established punishment for slayers. A court denying the estate to a slayer was to, in effect, add significant further punishment to what a slayer received under the criminal statute. Judge Gray argued that this was not something the court was permitted to do without an express, written statute. In Judge Gray’s opinion, the court could not simply create or imagine such statutes so as to obtain a morally pleasing result.
Slayer statutes codify the public policy principle that a murderer cannot profit from his crime. Slayer statutes provide a right of civil action to a victim’s successors for the purpose of directing the victim’s testate/intestate property away from the slayer. Such an action is brought by a successor, or other party of interest (e.g., life insurance company, bank), on behalf of the victim’s estate. The slayer statute applies to both real and personal property that would have been acquired by intestacy or by will.
In 1936, legal scholar John W. Wade proposed a No Profit theory statutory fix to promote uniformity amongst the states in dealing with slayer cases. In 1969, the Uniform Code Commission included No Profit theory language in its first promulgation of the Uniform Probate Code (UPC). Forty-eight states have enacted laws that strip a slayer of any inheritance benefit he would have gained from his unlawful act.
In the United States, most jurisdictions have enacted a slayer statute, which codifies the rule and supplies additional conditions. Such laws have sometimes been construed narrowly because the relevant statutes are criminal in nature, and serve to take away someone's rights that are otherwise afforded by law. Interpreted this way, a slayer statute will not prevent the killer from acquiring title to the property by other means. In jurisdictions with a common law slayer rule, a slayer statute may serve to extend and supplement the common law rule, rather than limiting it. For example, where the statute requires the heir to have been convicted to bar inheritance, a common law slayer rule that does not have this requirement may still serve to bar inheritance.
In 2012, the Arizona legislature amended Arizona's slayer rule to include the lesser crime of manslaughter in an effort to subject more killers to civil disinheritance. Prior to the 2012 amendment, only killers found guilty of homicide in the first or second degree would be disinherited under Arizona's slayer rule. Several specific cases (e.g., Grace Pianka; Douglas Grant; and Gilbert Ramos) prompted the Arizona legislature to amend Arizona's slayer rule by 1) expressly defining “intentional and felonious” to mean any individual who is found guilty of murder in the first or second degree, or the lesser crime of manslaughter; 2) allowing victims to place the decedent’s estate in constructive trust immediately from the time of the killing; and 3) allowing the victims to place the slayer’s estate (i.e., life insurance benefits) in constructive trust, in the case of murder-suicide. Arizona now touts its slayer rule as the strongest in the nation.
The Maryland slayer rule is harsher than most other states. In addition to prohibiting murderers from inheriting from their victims, Maryland's slayer rule prohibits anyone else from inheriting from murder victims through their murderers; Maryland's Slayer Rule is thus similar in structure to corruption of blood.
For example, a mother leaves her son $50,000, and leaves her son's child (her grandchild) $100,000. She leaves her residuary estate (i.e., whatever else is left of the estate) to her daughter. If the son kills his mother, then under Maryland law, the son's child will inherit the $100,000; however the son's $50,000 (which is also the indirect inheritance of the grandchild through his father), is not available under Maryland law to either the son, or his child. The $50,000 becomes part of the grandmother's residuary estate and goes to the daughter.
Texas does not have such a "slayer rule"; the death of a person by an intended heir does not nullify their inheritance, with one notable exception: if the murderer was the beneficiary of a life insurance policy, and the victim was the insured of said policy, the murderer forfeits all rights to the proceeds.
- Riggs v. Palmer
- Jesus A. Osete, Extending the "Slayer Rule" to Four-Legged Legatees, 8 J. Animal & Envtl. L. 56 (2017)
- ""Arizona's Slayer Statute: The Killer of Testator Intent" by Adam D. Hansen". bepress.com.
- Mut. Life Ins. Co. v. Armstrong, 117U.S. 591, 600 (1886).
- Riggs v. Palmer, 22 N.E. 188, 191-93(1889)
- The Law of Trusts and Trustees § 478.
- John W. Wade, Acquisition of Property by Wilfully Killing Another - A Statutory Solution, 49 Harv. L. Rev. 715 (1936).
- “An individual who feloniously and intentionally kills the decedent forfeits all benefits under this [article] with respect to the decedent's estate, including an intestate share, an elective share, an omitted spouse's or child's share, a homestead allowance, exempt property, and a family allowance. If the decedent died intestate, the decedent's intestate estate passes as if the killer disclaimed his [or her] intestate share.” § 2-803. Effect of Homicide on Intestate Succession, Wills, Trusts, Joint Assets, Life Insurance, and Beneficiary Designations., Unif. Probate Code § 2-803.
- See Anne-Marie Rhodes, Consequences of Heirs’ Misconduct: Moving from Rules to Discretion, 33 Ohio N.U. L. Rev. 975, 980 (2007).
- 23 Am. Jur. 2d Descent and Distribution § 50.
- "In the Bedroom". msnbc.com.
- "Fatal Visions". msnbc.com.
- "48 Hours Mystery: Deadly Prophecy". cbsnews.com. 31 October 2009.
- ABC News. "Faylene Grant: Death by Drowning or Murder?". ABC News.
- Cook v. Grierson, 380 Md. 502 (2004).
- Texas Probate Code, Section 41d