An unfortunate story out of Mississippi brings to light a common law, referred to as the “slayer statute,” which affects inheritance. In 2010, a young man suffering from severe schizophrenia, paranoia and delusions, killed his mother. Because of his severe mental illness, he was incompetent to stand trial in the criminal court. There was a legal issue that arose, however, with regard to his mother’s insurance policy, which named him as a beneficiary.
The purpose of so-called “slayer statutes”
A “slayer statute” precludes an individual from inheriting from the estate of someone whose death he or she caused. Each state has its own version of this law. Some require that the death be caused intentionally or willfully. While other states also preclude inheritance for deaths caused by negligence or reckless conduct. In Arkansas, and in many other states, the slayer statute also applies to beneficiaries to a life insurance policy, stating that if a beneficiary wrongfully takes the life of the insured, the beneficiary will not be allowed to collect the life insurance proceeds.
Does the slayer’s competency matter?
In the Mississippi case, the schizophrenic son’s siblings moved to invalidate his share of the inheritance from their mother. This was, however, a case of first impression for Mississippi courts. The novel issue was whether a murderer who had been declared mentally unfit to stand trial, could be precluded from inheritance. The appellate court ruled that because he was not competent to stand trial it was implied that he could not have “willfully” committed the murder. Yet, because civil and criminal codes have different standards for determining intent or willfulness, there would need to be a separate determination regarding the inheritance matter.
Arkansas’ definition of a “slayer”
Under the Arkansas slayer statute, the term “slayer” is defined as an individual who is:
(A) Convicted by a court of competent jurisdiction of or pleads guilty or nolo contendere to the unlawful killing of the decedent; (B) found by a preponderance of the evidence in a civil action to have unlawfully killed the decedent or procured the killing of the decedent, including an individual who has been: (i) Acquitted by reason of insanity, mental defect or disease, or any other mental incapacity concerning a criminal charge of the unlawful killing of the decedent; or (ii) Found to lack the capacity to understand or effectively assist in a criminal proceeding against himself or herself for the unlawful killing of the decedent; or (C) A juvenile who is adjudicated delinquent by reason of committing an act that if committed by an adult would constitute the unlawful killing of the decedent.
When does the slayer statute issue most often apply?
The vast majority of cases involving the slayer statute involve spouses. Of course, it is very common for spouses to be named as the beneficiaries of each other’s life insurance policy. Only if the death of one spouse is determined to be an accident, can the beneficiary spouse collect on the insurance policy. If the death is in any way suspicious, and a life insurance policy is involved, an investigation by law enforcement will be necessary. It is most often the family of the deceased that will request an investigation.
If you have questions regarding the slayer statute, or any other estate planning needs, please contact Sexton, Bailey Attorneys, PA online or by calling us at (479) 443-0062.