Prior to the passing of certain statutes, early U.S. case law saw insurance company arguments as it pertained to murderers who were seeking monetary gain from the insurance of those whom they killed. These insurer suits were not born directly of a sense of morality, per say, but instead rested on stirring public outrage over the inequity of a murderer seeking to profit from his/her crime (See, Riggs v. Palmer, 22 N.E. 188, 191 (N.Y. 1889). So what if we were talking about the crime of a parent or stepparent who, from all other surviving children’s accounts, and even by way of conviction for crimes against another child and family member, allegedly also molested/raped the deceased when they were a child? What if the decedent died leaving no spouse and no children of their own? Surely the perpetrator could not presume to make claim, let alone be awarded a share of the estate or life insurance proceeds arising out of the adult death of his or her then child victim? Looking further into this scenario, the law thereafter has slowly evolved to the extent that it provides for what are called “Slayer” statutes. In a nutshell, these laws are intended to bar a murderer from taking profit by way of a beneficiary claim against the estate of their victim. These laws were born of the English common law doctrines of attainder, forfeiture and corruption of the blood. This would not only extend to probate estate assets, but also to life insurance proceeds payable directly to a murderer (say in the instance of Scott Peterson, who, due to criminal conviction for murder, was barred from collecting insurance proceeds). Some Slayer statutes can also skirt the need for a criminal conviction of murder, and instead need only a finding of a preponderance of evidence as would be decided in a civil action suit. This can be seen in the Nicole Brown-Simpson and Ron Goldman murders, wherein O.J. Simpson was not found criminally guilty of murder, but nonetheless was held accountable in a Civil Court of law. However, this does not directly address the lesser crimes of a molester, nor the venue of Estate law. Some meager progress in the passing of law has been made following a few highly publicized and nationally recognized criminal cases, such as in Illinois following the horrific Ariel Castro serial kidnapping case. In that state, rapists are now barred from benefiting from the estates of children born from their acts of rape. However, it would appear that denial of a beneficiary claim made in an intestate estate by a molester/rapist family member often times hinges on two things, depending on the state…existence of a criminal conviction for rape (unlike slayer statutes wherein a civil suit finding is often the benchmark and pertains to murder only), along with the legal severing of familial bond (be that automatic; as may be the case in some states with a criminal conviction for rape, or by way of a separate petition in states where no automatic entry is made upon finding of criminal guilt). In other words, in the event an adult child dies without having justice sought for the childhood crimes against him or her, a family member perpetrator may have nothing barring them from making a successful claim to a share of an intestate estate of their former prey, depending on the state of residency of the deceased and those applicable laws. Extreme circumstance? The statistics say otherwise. Information compiled at the United States Department of Justice website says 1.8 million children in the United States are victims of sexual assault, only 30% of which are discovered and ever reported to authorities. Of those assaults, 30% of the abusers are family members. Additionally, according to Gallup Polls, only 50% of Americans have a Will in place. Given that the scenario presented herein has actually crossed my desk, if such wronged parties die without a Will, intestacy law in their state of residency could favor a family member offender as a rightful heir absent that claimant’s criminal conviction and/or legal termination of his or her parental rights. So, here is yet another reason to make a Will, in which you can provide specific exception for any family member who, “for reasons expressed to your counsel”, you would not wish to benefit from your passing.
by Christine Pittman
Reprinted with permission