February 6, 2008
MURDER AND INHERITANCE
By: Christopher Reinhart, Senior Attorney
You asked whether other states require a criminal conviction or allow other proof to exclude a murderer from inheriting or receiving life insurance proceeds or other benefits from the murder victim.
Connecticut law prohibits a murderer from inheriting or receiving part of the estate from (1) the victim or (2) another person if the homicide or death terminated an intermediate estate or hastened the time of enjoyment. This applies if the person is finally adjudged guilty as a principal or accessory of murder or capital felony in Connecticut or for a similar crime in another jurisdiction. The law provides how the interest passes in place of the murderer (CGS § 45a-447).
Connecticut law excludes a broader group of people under a provision on life insurance policies and annuities. It provides that someone who is a named beneficiary is not entitled to benefits if he or she intentionally caused the death of the person whose life is the subject of the policy or the annuitant. A person is excluded if (1) convicted of murder, capital felony, felony murder, arson murder, 1st degree manslaughter, or 1st degree manslaughter with a firearm or (2) the Superior Court makes a determination in the absence of a conviction based on the common law, including equity, that the person is not entitled to benefits (the person challenging entitlement has the burden of proof) (CGS § 45a-447(c)).
A 2005 law review article cites statutes in 42 states prohibiting murderers from inheriting from their victims (Pehush, Maryland is Dying for a Slayer Statute: The Ineffectiveness of the Common Law Slayer Rule in Maryland, 35 U. Balt. L. Rev. 271 (2005)). These statutes vary in many ways including the type of conduct that excludes someone from inheriting (for example, some statutes apply to murders, intentional killing, accessories to the killing, and procuring the killing and others cite particular statutes for murder or manslaughter). We focused on whether the statutes allow a court to consider proof other than a criminal conviction to show that a person was the murderer.
The Uniform Probate Code prohibits a murderer who feloniously and intentionally kills the victim from receiving any benefits from the victim's estate. It excludes someone: (1) after a conviction when all appeals are exhausted or (2) after the court, absent a conviction and on petition of an interested person, finds that the individual would be found criminally accountable by the preponderance of the evidence (§ 2-803, with amendments or revisions through 2006). We found 11 states that follow this Uniform Probate Code provision very closely: Alabama, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Carolina, and South Dakota. Of these states, California specifies that the burden of proof is on the party seeking to establish the murder and some of the states do not specify that an interested person must petition the court.
Seven other states allow a court proceeding to make a finding about a murder absent a conviction in a way that is similar to the method in states that follow the Uniform Probate Code: Colorado, Florida, Maine, Nebraska, New Jersey, Oregon, and Wisconsin. One of these states requires a different burden of proof: Maine requires clear and convincing evidence. And Wisconsin allows a hearing absent a criminal conviction or delinquency adjudication.
Utah takes a slightly different approach. Utah's law excludes someone who commits a disqualifying homicide. The court, on petition of an interested person, must determine by a finding by the preponderance of the evidence whether the person committed a homicide that meets the elements of any felony homicide (except automobile homicide). The law allows the court to find that the act of disinheritance would create a manifest injustice. The law makes a criminal conviction for a disqualifying homicide, after all appeals are exhausted, conclusive for purposes of this provision.
Four additional states allow a court to make a determination absent a conviction but only under certain circumstances. We describe these statutes below.
Kansas takes a different approach. Kansas law excludes someone from inheriting who feloniously kills or procures the killing of the victim. But when a person kills or causes the killing of his or her spouse and then commits suicide, the estates and property of both are disposed of as if their deaths were simultaneous.
The remaining states either require a criminal conviction or it is unclear from the statutes we reviewed whether a court can make a determination absent a conviction.
STATES ALLOWING A COURT DETERMINATION UNDER CERTAIN CIRCUMSTANCES
Four states allow a court to make a determination absent a conviction but only under certain circumstances.
1. In Illinois, the court can make a determination separate from any criminal proceeding but it cannot proceed to trial and the person cannot be required to submit to discovery until (a) any criminal proceeding is finally determined by the trial court or (b) if no criminal charge is brought, one year has passed since the date of death.
2. Indiana makes a person a constructive trustee of any property acquired from the victim if he or she is guilty or guilty but mentally ill of murder, causing suicide, or voluntary manslaughter. The law allows a civil action to make a determination that the person killed or caused the suicide of the other by the preponderance of the evidence if the person is (a) charged with one of the crimes and (b) found not responsible by reason of insanity at time of the crime.
3. North Carolina allows the court to find that the person willfully and unlawfully killed or procured the killing by the preponderance of the evidence in a civil action brought within two years after the death. If a criminal proceeding is brought within the two years, the civil action can be brought within the later of two years or 90 days after a final determination by the criminal court. The burden of proof is on the party seeking to establish the killing.
4. Virginia allows the court to make a determination that the person committed murder by the preponderance of the evidence if (a) there is no conviction, (b) there is no acquittal, and (c) the person is not available for prosecution due to death, suicide, or otherwise. The party seeking to establish the murder has the burden of proof.