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In most jurisdictions, a killer cannot profit from their crime, i.e. if someone kills someone else, they cannot inherit from them.

If I create a will, can I specifically ignore the slayer rule? Can I leave my assets to certain persons regardless of whether or not they caused my death?

Please include case law or statutes (if they exist). I am interested in answers for any jurisdiction within the United States, but answers in other jurisdictions are acceptable too.

  • In addition to "Slayer Rules" there are also "Son of Sam" rules in some but not all states. Slayer rules apply to benefit from the person slain. A Son of Sam rule applies to benefit from a third party from your crime (e.g. profits from a memoir about a crime). To circumvent a slayer rule, you could make a lifetime complete gift to the slayer before you die, rather than after pursuant to a will or non-probate transfer. – ohwilleke Nov 11 '16 at 22:41
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No. This is not a provision that the testator or testatrix (i.e. the person writing a will) may waive in advance.

But, the slayer statute does not get invoked unless an interested person invokes it in a probate proceeding after a death, and if no interested party wishes to invoke it, the will would be given effect anyway (just as it would in a case where no one could prove that someone was a slayer).

Some states apply the slayer statute to will substitutes, and some do not. Similar laws that revoke dispositions upon divorce are pre-empted for interests in employee benefit plans subject to ERISA, but the U.S. Supreme Court has declined to resolve the issue. See Egelhoff v. Egelhoff, 532 U.S. 141, 152, 121 S.Ct. 1322, 149 L.Ed.2d 264 (2001) (pre-empting divorce revocation statutes, but declining to decide whether ERISA preempts state statutes forbidding a murdering heir from receiving property as a result of the killing) (cited as good law in Kennedy v. Plan Administrator, 555 U.S. 285 (2009) at footnote 14); Wasserman v. Schwartz, 364 N.J.Super. 399, 836 A.2d 828 (2001) (circumventing ERISA pre-emption). But see, Herinckx v. Sanelle, 281 Or.App. 869, (Oregon App. October 26, 2016) (Oregon slayer statute pre-empted by ERISA and reviewing variations in state slayer statutes).

A notable comprehensive review of the California and common law rules regarding how the slayer statute applies in murder-suicide cases where the victim and suicidal killer own property in joint tenancy is found in In re Estate of Castiglioni, 47 Cal.Rptr.2d 288, 40 Cal.App.4th (Cal. App. 1995). The murder-suicide scenario is also addressed in depth in the case In re Gleason, 947 N.Y.S.2d 761, 36 Misc.3d 486 (Surrogate's Court 2012).

Also, the definition of homicide that qualifies under the slayer statute sometimes covers only certain forms of homicide. For example, it might apply in cases of murder or manslaughter, but not in cases of negligent homicide. Alaska, for example, takes the minority position that unintentional homicides suffice to invoke the slayer statute, subject to a manifest injustice exception. In re Estate of Blodgett, 147 P.3d 702 (Alaska 2006).1

There is unsurprisingly little or no case law on an intentional waiver of these provisions, and assisted suicide would often not qualify as an eligible homicide although this would vary from state to state. But see, Colorado Proposition 106 (adopted by voters November 8, 2016) as it pertains to insurance benefits.

A Sample Statute

The currently effective section of the Colorado Revised Statutes (modeled on the Uniform Probate Code, which is highly influential to legislative drafters and in courts with common law rules, but is not actually adopted verbatim by a majority of states) which are applicable to this issue reads as follows:

§ 15-11-803. Effect of homicide on intestate succession, wills, trusts, joint assets, life insurance, and beneficiary designations

(1) Definitions. As used in this section, unless the context otherwise requires: (a) "Disposition or appointment of property" includes a transfer of an item of property or any other benefit to a beneficiary designated in a governing instrument. (b) "Felonious killing", except as provided in subsection (7) of this section, is the killing of the decedent by an individual who, as a result thereof, is convicted of, pleads guilty to, or enters a plea of nolo contendere to the crime of murder in the first or second degree or manslaughter, as said crimes are defined in sections 18-3-102 to 18-3-104, C.R.S. (c) "Governing instrument" means a governing instrument executed by the decedent. (d) "Killer" is any individual who has committed a felonious killing. (e) "Revocable", with respect to a disposition, appointment, provision, or nomination, means one under which the decedent, at the time of or immediately before death, was alone empowered, by law or under the governing instrument, to cancel the designation in favor of the killer, whether or not the decedent was then empowered to designate himself or herself in place of his or her killer and or the decedent then had capacity to exercise the power.

(2) Forfeiture of statutory benefits. An individual who feloniously kills the decedent forfeits all benefits with respect to the decedent's estate, including an intestate share, an elective-share, an omitted spouse's or child's share, the decedent's homestead exemption under section 38-41-204, C.R.S., 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.

(3) Revocation of benefits under governing instruments. The felonious killing of the decedent: (a) Revokes any revocable (i) disposition or appointment of property made by the decedent to the killer in a governing instrument, (ii) provision in a governing instrument conferring a general or nongeneral power of appointment on the killer, and (iii) nomination of the killer in a governing instrument, nominating or appointing the killer to serve in any fiduciary or representative capacity, including a personal representative, executor, trustee, or agent; and (b) Severs the interests of the decedent and killer in property held by them at the time of the killing as joint tenants with the right of survivorship or as community property with the right of survivorship, transforming the interests of the decedent and killer into tenancies in common.

(4) Effect of severance. A severance under paragraph (b) of subsection (3) of this section does not affect any third-party interest in property acquired for value and in good faith reliance on an apparent title by survivorship in the killer unless a writing declaring the severance has been noted, registered, filed, or recorded in records appropriate to the kind and location of the property which are relied upon, in the ordinary course of transactions involving such property, as evidence of ownership.

(5) Effect of revocation. 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.

(6) Wrongful acquisition of property. A wrongful acquisition of property or interest by a killer not covered by this section shall be treated in accordance with the principle that a killer cannot profit from his or her wrong.

(7) Felonious killing; how determined - time limitations on civil proceedings. (a) Criminal proceedings. After all right to appeal has been waived or exhausted following the entry of a judgment of conviction establishing criminal accountability for the felonious killing of the decedent, such judgment conclusively establishes the convicted individual as the decedent's killer for purposes of this section. (b) Civil proceedings. Notwithstanding the status or disposition of a criminal proceeding, a court of competent jurisdiction, upon the petition of an interested person, shall determine whether, by a preponderance of evidence standard, each of the elements of felonious killing of the decedent has been established. If such elements have been so established, such determination conclusively establishes that individual as the decedent's killer for purposes of this section. (c) Time limitations on civil proceedings. (I) A petition brought under paragraph (b) of this subsection (7) may not be filed more than three years after the date of the decedent's death. (II) Notwithstanding any provision of subparagraph (I) of this paragraph (c) to the contrary, if a criminal proceeding is commenced in a court of this state or in another jurisdiction against an individual for the felonious killing of the decedent, a petition brought under paragraph (b) of this subsection (7) may be filed so long as the petition is filed no later than one year after all right to appeal has been waived or exhausted following an entry of a judgment of conviction, or a dismissal, or an acquittal in the criminal proceeding. However, if the death and the possible culpability of the slayer for the felonious slaying of the decedent is not known to the petitioner within the three-year period of limitations established pursuant to subparagraph (I) of this paragraph (c), the accrual of the action under paragraph (b) of this subsection (7) and the possibility of the tolling of the running of the three-year period of limitation under subparagraph (I) of this paragraph (c) shall be determined according to the principles of accrual and tolling established by case law with respect to similar limitations established under section 13-80-108, C.R.S. (d) Judgment of conviction. For the purposes of this subsection (7), a "judgment of conviction" includes a judgment of conviction on a plea of guilty or nolo contendere, or a judgment of conviction on a verdict of guilty by the court or by a jury.

(8) Protection of payors and other third parties. (a) A payor or other third party is not liable for having made a payment or transferred an item of property or any other benefit to a beneficiary designated in a governing instrument affected by a felonious killing, or for having taken any other action in reliance on the beneficiary's apparent entitlement under the terms of the governing instrument, before the payor or other third party has received written notice as described in paragraph (b) of this subsection (8). A payor or other third party shall have no duty or obligation to make any determination as to whether or not the decedent was the victim of a felonious killing or to seek any evidence with respect to any such felonious killing even if the circumstances of the decedent's death are suspicious or questionable as to the beneficiary's participation in any such felonious killing. A payor or other third party is only liable for actions taken two or more business days after the payor or other third party has actual receipt of such written notice. Any form or service of notice other than that described in paragraph (b) of this subsection (8) shall not be sufficient to impose liability on a payor or other third party for actions taken pursuant to the governing instrument. (b) The written notice shall indicate the name of the decedent, the name of the person asserting an interest, the nature of the payment or item of property or other benefit, and a statement that a claim of forfeiture or revocation is being made under this section. The written notice shall be mailed to the payor's or other third party's main office or home by registered or certified mail, return receipt requested, or served upon the payor or other third party in the same manner as a summons in a civil action. (c) Upon receipt of the written notice described in paragraph (b) of this subsection (8), a payor or other third party may pay to the court any amount owed or transfer to or deposit with the court any item of property held by it. The availability of such actions under this section shall not prevent the payor or other third party from taking any other action authorized by law or the governing instrument. The court is the court having jurisdiction of the probate proceedings relating to the decedent's estate, or if no proceedings have been commenced, the court having jurisdiction of probate proceedings relating to decedents' estates located in the county of the decedent's residence. If no probate proceedings have been commenced, the payor or other third party shall file with the court a copy of the written notice received by the payor or other third party, with the payment of funds or transfer or deposit of property. The court shall not charge a filing fee to the payor or other third party for the payment to the court of amounts owed or transfer to or deposit with the court of any item of property, even if no probate proceedings have been commenced before such payment, transfer, or deposit. Payment of amounts to the court or transfer to or deposit with the court of any item of property pursuant to this section by the payor or other third party discharges the payor or other third party from all claims under the governing instrument or applicable law for the value of amounts paid to the court or items of property transferred to or deposited with the court. (d) The court shall hold the funds or item of property and, upon its determination under this section, shall order disbursement in accordance with the determination. A filing fee, if any, shall be charged upon disbursement either to the recipient or against the funds or property on deposit with the court, in the discretion of the court. (e) Upon petition to the court by the beneficiary designated in a governing instrument, the court may order that all or part of the property be paid to the beneficiary in an amount and subject to conditions consistent with this section.

(9) Protection of bona fide purchasers; personal liability of recipient. (a) A person who purchases property for value and without notice, or who receives a payment or other item of property in partial or full satisfaction of a legally enforceable obligation, is neither obligated under this section to return the payment, item of property, or benefit nor is liable under this section for the amount of the payment or the value of the item of property or benefit. However, a person who, not for value, receives a payment, item of property, or any other benefit to which the person is not entitled under this section is obligated to return the payment, item of property, or benefit, or is personally liable for the amount of the payment or the value of the item of property or benefit, to the person who is entitled to it under this section. (b) If this section or any part of this section is preempted by federal law with respect to a payment, an item of property, or any other benefit covered by this section, a person who, not for value, receives the payment, item of property, or any other benefit to which the person is not entitled under this section is obligated to return the payment, item of property, or benefit, or is personally liable for the amount of the payment or the value of the item of property or benefit, to the person who would have been entitled to it were this section or part of this section not preempted.

1 The other four states and District of Columbia arguably adopting the minority position that negligent homicide invokes the slayer statute are as follows, from footnote 5 of the dissent to the Alaska Supreme Court's decision cited above.

The District of Columbia slayer statute covers homicide resulting from grossly negligent conduct. See Turner v. Travelers Ins. Co., 487 A.2d 614, 615 (D.C.1985) (explaining that the slayer statute covers "unintentional killing derived from reckless or grossly negligent conduct").

Louisiana's slayer statute covers all criminal homicide. In re Hamilton, 446So.2d 463, 465 (La.App. 1984) (holding that slayer statute "was intended to include situations such as that presented by this case, where a beneficiary does not intentionally and feloniously cause the death of the insured but is nonetheless held criminally responsible for that death").

North Carolina's common law slayer rule prohibits inheritance after any wrongful homicide. Quick v. United Benefit Life Ins. Co., 287 N.C. 47, 213 S.E.2d 563, 567 (1975); Matter of Estate of Cox, 97 N.C.App. 312, 388 S.E.2d 199, 201 (1990). The continued application of this common law rule has been criticized in light of a slayer statute barring only intentional killers from inheriting. N.C. GEN. STAT. § 31A-3; see also generally Julie Waller Hampton, The Need for a New Slayer Statute in North Carolina, 24CAMPBELL L. REV. 295 (2002).

Kentucky Revised Statute § 381.280 bars inheritance from those convicted of any felonious homicide. "Reckless homicide" is a felony. KRS § 507.050. Kentucky defines "reckless" as "a gross deviation from the standard of conduct that a reasonable person would observe." KRS § 501.020. Reckless homicide in Kentucky is therefore equivalent to criminal negligence in Alaska under AS 11.81.900(a)(4).

Kansas Statute § 59-513 states that "[n]o person convicted of feloniously killing, or procuring the killing of, another person shall inherit." Involuntary homicide under Kansas law extends to "killing of a human being" committed recklessly, during a misdemeanor, or "during the commission of a lawful act in an unlawful manner." KS ST§ 59-513. This arguably could extend to grossly negligent conduct, especially as KS ST§ 21-3201 explains that "[t]he terms 'gross negligence,' 'culpable negligence,' 'wanton negligence' and 'wantonness' are included within the term 'recklessness' as used in this code." A federal district court has held that Kansas's slayer statute does not apply to negligent homicide, and there appear to be no state cases interpreting the scope of the statute or applying it to negligent homicide. Rosenberger v. Nw. Mut. Life Ins. Co., 176 F.Supp. 379, 382–83 (D. Kan. 1959) (explaining that "the intent of the legislature in enacting the statute must have been to give effect to the common-law rule"). The Kansas slayer statute is essentially unchanged since Rosenberger.

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  • 1
    Unbelievably thorough answer, @Ohwilleke! Most impressive piece of work. Upvote from me for it. – Daniel Anderson Nov 11 '16 at 22:34
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You can make a private arrangement (like a will) that conflicts with the law, however, such a will will be either unenforceable in that particular or totally void.

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