The slayer rule is an often-codified law that prevents a murderer from inheriting their victims’ property. The rule disincentivizes people from committing murders to collect an inheritance. It follows the maxim that one should not be able to profit from their crime. However, despite its near universal adoption across the United States, the slayer rule's details are rife with differences and controversy. What is the standard of proof required? What level of intent is necessary? These issues demonstrate the broad debate around the slayer rule implementation across the country.
The standard of proof for murder triggering the slayer statute varies between states. For the most part, states follow UPC s. 2-803(3)(g) and require a civil preponderance of the evidence. These states typically allow interested persons to petition the court for a finding that the beneficiary had likely killed the decedent. If the court agrees that the defendant had more-likely-than-not intentionally killed the decedent, this civil standard of proof will suffice in barring the killer’s inheritance. In many such states, a criminal conviction of intentional murder would automatically disinherit the slayer beneficiary.
In other states, such as Connecticut, only a criminal conviction will bar a killer from inheriting (General Statutes 45a-447). Some argue that this is the clear path forward: the social repercussions of being labeled a murderer requires an extraordinary amount of evidence, which can only be secured through a thorough criminal conviction. On the other hand, Connecticut’s approach fails to account for real-world circumstances, such as when the prosecution fails to make a conviction due to procedural rather than substantive reasons. A famous example of a prosecution’s failure is the O.J. Simpson trial, where his acquittal in the criminal trial did not absolve him of his civil liability for murder. Using a civil standard for victim compensation has an important role in the justice system when a criminal trial can not secure a conviction. Ultimately, a civil standard of proof remains nearly universal across the United States, and Connecticut remains an outlier in successions law.
The slayer’s intent in killing the decedent is perhaps the largest focal point and difference between states. Is intention required and what exact intention is required?
With most states adopting UPC s. 2-803(c), the “felonious and intentional killing” of the decedent is required. The definition of intentional became the point of discussion in the recent South Dakota judgment New York Life Ins. Co. v. Torrence, 592 F. Supp. 3d 836, 840 (D.S.D. 2022). The decedent listed her partner, Dean, as her sole beneficiary on her life insurance. On the night of her death, Sherry and Dean got into an altercation while in their vehicle and Sherry was beaten. Dean claimed that when they returned home, Sherry told him she’d come inside the house soon, and he went to bed inside. When he woke up alone a few hours later, he found Sherry had died in the car. Dean pleaded guilty to two counts of domestic aggravated assault causing death and the cause of death was undisputed. During sentencing, the judge stated that while it was unclear whether Dean intended to kill Sherry, it was clear he “fully intended to strike her” and these strikes caused her death. The life insurance and two of Sherry’s children petitioned the court to remove Dean as a beneficiary.
Dean claimed that he did not intend to kill Sherry, and thus should still be entitled to the insurance sum. The judge considered this narrow interpretation of the slayer’s rule before ultimately rejecting it. While some states, such as Washington, had previously required the intent to kill to disinherit a beneficiary (In re Estate of Kissinger), most American courts had the broader approach. The intentionality referred to whether the killer intended to commit the acts that caused the decedent’s death, not whether these actions were motivated by the desire to end the decedent’s life.
Thus the court found that South Dakota would follow more popular reasoning and did not have to analyze whether a killer wanted to cause the death. It only needed to demonstrate the intentionality behind the action that caused the death, at which point the maxim of “preventing a wrongdoer from profiting from their wrong” kicked in. With this reasoning, the court removed Dean as a life insurance beneficiary.
Other states do not require intentional killing at all, but only that it be felonious. An example is the District of Columbia, whose s. 19-320 explicitly states that manslaughter qualifies for the slayer rule. In that state, the court has interpreted that even an unintentional killing would trigger the statute. In Turner v. Travelers Ins. Co., 487 A.2d 614, 615 (D.C. 1985), a husband was convicted of the involuntary manslaughter of his wife and still sought to inherit as a beneficiary. Ultimately, the court found that there was no distinction between voluntary and involuntary manslaughter, and thus the husband could not inherit property nor receive the life insurance payout. American states that similarly minimize the importance of intention include Colorado, Delaware, and Oregon. In these states, a conviction of reckless manslaughter may be sufficient to trigger the slayer rule, thus calling into question whether intentionality is a core part of the slayer rule.
Another unique example is Alaska, whose section 13-12-803 includes accidental felonious killings in its slayer statute, but allows the killer to petition the court for an exception. This system casts a wider net and catches potentially blameful yet unintentional killers. Ultimately, judges are tasked with using their discretion in absolving these potential beneficiaries. Rather than a hard-and-fast rule, the slayer rule thus often becomes an equitable and ethical exercise. Even those accidentally causing deaths are judged on their blameworthiness, which may ultimately end in disinheritance.
Many states incorporate an analysis of the killer’s mental health in determining their culpability. In Ford v Ford, 307 Md. 105, 512 A.2d 389 (Md. 1986), a daughter was able to inherit from her mother’s will despite having murdered her. The daughter had been found not criminally responsible for the killing due to insanity. This finding negated the intentionality requirement of the slayer rule, and thus the daughter was not stripped of her inheritance.
Other state courts have rejected this approach, as was the case recently in the 2018 decision Laborers' Pension Fund v. Miscevic, 880 F.3d 927 (7th Cir. 2018). The Illinois court analyzed how different jurisdictions have handled the issue. The Court’s judgment noted that while Mississippi, New Jersey, and Texas courts allowed killers who were non-criminally responsible due to insanity to inherit, Washington and –most recently–Virginia courts still barred their inheritance. Ultimately, Illinois had in the past ruled in using the latter approach, and thus the defendant could not benefit from her murdered husband's pension fund.
As of 2023, there is little uniformity across the United States, with the court in Miscevic demonstrating that ruling today will typically conform to the precedent set in their state. The uncertain state of the law is demonstrated by continued litigation on the issue despite its decades-long judicial history. To regulate this disparity or uncertainty, some states, such as North Carolina, have specifically codified an insane killer’s right to inherit (s. 31A-3). Others, like Ohio, have explicitly barred it (s. 2105.19(A)). By codifying the issue in statute, legislatures can also allow for more creativity and fairness. For example, Ohio still allows a disinherited killer suffering from insanity to challenge their disinheritance through a jury trial on the issue (s. 2105.19(C)).
Some believe the slayer rule operates by voiding any gifts the testator made to their murderer. One can not reasonably intend to give property to a beneficiary who later murders them. With this conception, the testator’s wishes are paramount. Wisconsin’s unique view on this issue demonstrates the possibility of giving a testator’s intention legal supremacy. Under s. 854.14(6)(b), a testator may explicitly waive the slayer rule and allow a killer beneficiary to inherit from their will. Some states perceive the slayer rule as a counter to a testator’s misinformed consent rather than a strict equitable remedy or public policy decision. Wisconsin’s law makes us ponder whether disincentivizing murders is important to the slayer’s rule.
Surprisingly, this provision exists despite Wisconsin’s requirement of intentional killing. In this case, it would rarely apply. However, perhaps the opt-out clause would be reasonable in states where accidental or negligent killings result in the slayer rule’s application. For example, if an elderly person must be carefully administered medication and cared for in order to survive, they may still wish that their caretaker inherits from them even if that caretaker’s mistake/negligence ultimately causes their death. Perhaps these states with stricter and broader slayer statutes should better incorporate the testator’s intent to account for such situations.
While the maxim that a killer should not benefit from their crimes remains universal, states vary wildly in their approaches. The standard of proof required, the treatment of the killer's intention (including their mental state), and the role of the testator’s intent are all areas of disagreement between different jurisdictions. Complicating the process, many legislatures fail to specifically address these issues within their legislation and leave these details to their judiciaries. Some academics, such as Fredrick E. Vars, have proposed a more empirical and democratic solution to these issues through citizen polling and participation. Whether one sees the issue as a matter of equity or public policy, perhaps the best solution to the patchwork of slayer statutes is listening to our citizen’s voices in the deeply ethical matter.