Killers Shouldn't Inherit from Their Victims -- Or Should They?
Oklahoma City University School of Law
June 10, 2013
Georgia Law Review, Forthcoming
Almost 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 profit from her crime. This article, however, suggests reasons why this age old truism may not necessarily be true. Where murder and inheritance overlap, we often find family. When family members kill one another, the equities are often cloudy. The socio-pathic 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 or their children from violence. Most children who kill a parent act to stop severe and prolonged abuse by that parent; most other parricides are acutely mentally ill. Most mothers who kill their 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 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 found not guilty 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. I explain here why it is not, and offer revisions to these rules to address this problem.
Keywords: property, wills and trusts, domestic violence, inheritance
JEL Classification: K4
Date posted: June 10, 2013
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