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I was watching a “true crime” type of TV show, which raised an interesting question (to me) regarding wills and inheritance. Here’s the scenario:

An elderly wealthy man had a neighbor who was his caregiver. The man decided to will all his assets to the caregiver, presumably as a reward for her service. The caregiver was aware of this. After some time, the man decided to change his will because of a disagreement with the caregiver. The caregiver found out about this, and before the man could actually change the will, she murdered him. The caregiver was found guilty and given a life sentence.

My question is, since the will was never changed, does the caregiver still inherit the man’s assets? Would it matter if she was guilty of a lesser crime such as manslaughter? Or if her sentence was less than life?

The show didn't mention the jurisdiction (or I forgot it), but for the sake of argument, assume the state of Maryland. If significantly different in other states, I'd be interested in that as well.

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The seminal case on this was Riggs v. Palmer, 115 N.Y. 506 (1889). A grandson stood to inherit a sizeable estate from his grandfather and, concerned that the will might change, killed his grandfather.

In the most jurisdictions have passed "slayer statutes" to prevent the killer from taking under the will.

In Maryland, one who "feloniously and intentionally kills, conspires to kill, or procures the killing of the decedent" is barred from inheriting or otherwise benefiting under the will. See Md. Est. & Trusts Code § 11-112. Manslaughter is a felony in Maryland. See Md. Code Crim. Law § 2-207. So if a particular instance of manslaughter involves intent (e.g. the grandson intentionally kills the grandfather following some adequate provocation), the slayer statute should bar taking under the will. But if it doesn't, the killer wouldn't be disqualified.

Wikipedia adds:

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 mother's residuary estate and goes to the daughter.

  • On a related note, this is a nice treatment of slayer statutes. – Pat W. Sep 29 '20 at 21:37
  • What if, instead of killing my rich uncle in order to inherit my one-tenth of his one-trillion dollars, I kill the other heirs in order to increase my share of his money? Do I then become unable to inherit anything from him? – Michael Hardy Oct 4 '20 at 6:29
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    @MichaelHardy Your scenario would vary state by state. But in the absence of a state slayer statute that prohibits taking under your circumstances, ordinary estate law has an answer too. At common law a testamentary gift to a dead person lapsed into the estate's residue (so it would go to whomever takes the residue under the will). Modern jurisdictions that have antilapse statutes save the gift if the intended beneficiary was a blood relative of the testator and the beneficiary died with issue (so the intended beneficiary's issue would take). – Pat W. Oct 4 '20 at 20:35

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