Why The Slayer Rule May Prevent the Slayer’s Estate From Benefiting From the Slayer’s Act
By Adrian P. Thomas
Nullus Commodum capere potest de injuria sua propria
(No man can take advantage of his own wrong)
Some readers may be familiar with one of my cases that has been in the headlines recently. When appropriate, the Florida Slayer Rule can be applied to prevent an injustice and to preclude a killer from benefiting from the crime.
Florida, like many other states, has adopted the Uniform Probate Code’s version of the Slayer Rule. See Fla.Stat. §732.802. Unif. Probate Code 2-803 (amended 1993), 8 U.L.A. 211, 211-12. The relevant part of the statute reads:
(b) 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, and 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. (c) The felonious and intentional killing of the decedent:
(1) revokes any revocable (i) disposition or appointment of property made by the decedent to the killer in a governing instrument,
(2) severs the interests of the decedent and killer in property held by them at the time of the killing joint tenants with right of survivorship, transforming the interests of the decedent and killer into tenancies in common,
(3) Provisions of a governing instrument are given effect as if the killer disclaimed all provisions revoked by this section or, in the case of a revoked nomination in a fiduciary or representative capacity, as if the killer predeceased the decedent. (f) A wrongful acquisition of property or interest by a killer not covered by this section must be treated in accordance with the principle that a killer cannot profit from his wrong. (g) After all right to appeal has been exhausted, a judgment of conviction establishing criminal accountability for the felonious and intentional killing of the decedent conclusively establishes the convicted individual as the decedent’s killer for purposes of this section. In the absence of a conviction, the court, upon the petition of an interested person, must determine whether, under the preponderance of evidence standard, the individual would be found criminally accountable for the felonious and intentional killing of the decedent. If the court and determines that, under that standard, the individual would be found criminally accountable for the felonious and intentional killing of the decedent, the determination conclusively establishes that individual as the decedent’s killer for the purposes of this section.
What is the Purpose of the Slayer Rule?
In our free democracy, it is a natural that every person has a right to inherit. The slayer rule is consistent with the values and mores of our society: to maintain and preserve the integrity of our property-transfer system. It is also consistent with many of the other laws governing estates and trusts. For example, we have doctrines that prohibit unscrupulous persons from unduly influencing others in order to change their last will and testament or a trust in a way that is not consistent with the intent of the testator or grantor. Similarly, the slayer rule prevents a person from altering the intended course of property succession by means of a wrongful slaying.
What public policy is promoted by the Slayer Rule?
Just like the death penalty is intended to deter people from committing murder, so too is the Slayer Rule intended to prevent unjust enrichment and to discourage people from committing criminal and damaging acts in and to their neighbors for economic gain. The logic behind the Slayer Rule is that if the killer doesn’t receive the benefit of an inheritance that would otherwise flow from his or her act, that person might be less inclined to kill for money. For example, by denying the slayer any of the benefits that result from his wrongful act, one who might kill could be less inclined to act or certainly has no financial incentive to murder. Thus, the slayer rule is supposed to have an effect on deterring economically motivated killings.
What if the Person is found not guilty of murder?
This issue has arisen in many cases and most commonly is at issue when a killer is found not guilty by reason of insanity. It is an essential element of the Slayer Rule that the slayer possess the requisite mens rea or guilty mind or mental culpability when the slayer committed the murder. For example, in the case of In re Estate of Brumage, 460 So.2d 989 (Fla. 4th DCA 1984), the court found that a son, who had killed his mother but had been found not guilty by reason of insanity, was allowed to receive nonprobate assets of her estate absent a showing that the killing was wrongful.
Under the Uniform Probate Code, and most other jurisdictions that have adopted its version of the Slayer Rule, those who kill while acting in self defense are exempt from the Slayer Rule. Likewise, those persons who are acquitted or are convicted of a lesser degree offense, such as manslaughter, are exempt from the Slayer Rule.
May a killer’s estate and family lose their inheritance too?
This issue hasn’t been addressed by any legislative modification of the Uniform Probate Code version of the Slayer Rule, or Florida’s adopted version either, so some courts have answered the question by extending the Slayer Rule to address the rights of a slayer’s family and treating them like the slayer. Therefore, these courts deny the slayer and the slayer’s family any share of the victim’s estate.
For example, in the case of In re Estates of Covert, 761 N.E.2d 571 (2001), Ed Covert shot and killed his wife, Kathleen and then turned the gun on himself just three minutes later, ending his own life. During the probate process, it was discovered that a few years prior to the tragic murder/suicide, the couple had executed a joint will which provided that, upon the death of the first spouse, the surviving spouse was to inherit all of the property. Upon the survivor’s death, certain specified property passed to Kathleen’s sister and the residue of the estate was to be divided equally among the spouse’s parents and siblings.
Kathleen’s family asked the probate court to apply the Slayer Rule and order that the property pass only to them due to the circumstances of Kathleen’s death. As expected, Ed’s family members asked the probate court for distribution of the assets to be divided equally pursuant to the last will and testament that had been executed three years prior. The probate directed that Kathleen’s property and the couple’s joint property pass to Kathleen’s estate, and disqualified the Ed’s family from taking due to the circumstances of her death. Ed’s property, on the other hand, was directed to his estate to be distributed pursuant to the provisions of the will. On appeal, the court held that the lower courts were correct in applying the Slayer rule and in preventing Ed and his estate from profiting from his wrongdoing.
What About Jointly Owned Property?
Both the Uniform Probate Code’s Slayer Rule and the Rule adopted by the Florida legislature convert jointly owned assets, or assets owned as joint tenants, into tenancies in common. The distinctive characteristic of assets owned as joint tenants is survivorship; that is, the property descends to the deceased owner’s survivor or survivors. Florida’s Slayer Rule provides “a joint tenant who unlawfully and intentionally kills another joint tenant thereby effects a severance of the interest of the decedent so that the share of the decedent passes as the decedent’s property and the killer has no rights by survivorship.” Fla.Stat. §732.802(2).
Florida courts have consistently applied this section of the Slayer Rule and confirmed that when a joint tenant (with right of survivorship) kills the co-owner of the jointly held property, the property rights as joint tenants with rights of survivorship are extinguished and the property is owned as tenants in common at the time of the victim’s death. Julia v. Russo, 984 So.2d 1283 (Fla. 4th DCA 2008); Capoccia v. Capoccia, 505 o.2d 624 (3d DCA 1987).
But Wait…There’s More
There are other valid reasons for excluding the murderer’s family and estate from benefiting from the killing. “The beneficiaries of the slayer’s estate may be considered undeserving possibly because of a notion that the victim, in response to the killer’s act, would have prevented the slayer’s heirs or will beneficiaries from enjoying the property had the victim had the opportunity to change the estate plan.” Fellows, 71 Iowa L. Rev. 489, 528 (1986). Also, a strong argument for denying the killer’s family from taking under the victim’s estate is to prevent the slayer from controlling the disposition of the victim’s property through transfers of assets at or near the time of death. It necessarily follows that the beneficiaries or heirs of the slayer’s estate should be subject to the slayer rule because it prevents the slayer from directly benefiting from his wrongdoing.