Killers Shouldn't Inherit from Their Victims...Or Should They?
Oklahoma City University School of Law
August 20, 2012
All states have laws, called Slayer Rules, barring killers from inheriting from their victims. At first glance, the idea behind these statutes seems reasonable, indeed, morally obvious: a killer should not be able to profit from his or her crime. This article, however, suggests reasons why this reasoning may not necessarily be valid. Where murder and inheritance overlap, we often find family. When family members kill one another, the equities are often cloudy. The sociopathic child who kills a grandparent to hasten an inheritance is an anomaly. In reality, murders within families are usually a product of that family’s harmful, often violent, dynamics, from which, because of the failures of state and society, a family member sometimes can find no escape except murder. Most women who kill their husbands or partners do so to protect themselves from life-threatening violence. Ninety percent of children who kill a parent act to stop severe and prolonged abuse by that parent; most of the other child killers are acutely mentally ill. Most mothers who kill children suffer from post-partum psychosis, a severe mental illness symptoms of which include visual and auditory hallucinations and delusions. In many of these cases, social, political, economic and cultural factors have combined to block the suffering relative’s escape, sometimes leaving murder as the only way out.
Once the tragedy has played out, resulting in a murder, a corpse, and a defendant, the legal system often fails to recognize or address the defendant’s plight: it often bars effective defenses at trial, it extorts pleas that stand in as guilty verdicts without reliably reflecting guilt, and it “offers” defendants inadequate representation. Even defendants who bypass these obstacles and are exculpated at criminal trial still may fall within the reach of the Slayer Rules, due to the lower standard of proof and different definition of intent that operate in civil proceedings. Depriving such defendants of the decedent’s estate compounds their vulnerability by depriving them of resources.
In this context, it is far from clear that barring such killers from inheriting is morally or legally justified, or sound public policy. This article explains why it is not. It proposes and justifies ways of tempering Slayer Rules with equity. Courts asked to apply such statutes should consider the context of the killing and decline to apply Slayer Rules when the fact finder discerns a history of abuse or mental illness leading to the murder. The reasons for this remedy reveal the flaws in the traditional justification for these Slayer Rules.
Keywords: Wills, Trusts and Estates, Property, Family Law
JEL Classification: K11working papers series
Date posted: August 21, 2012
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