March 10, 2012
One of the issues in law is whether one who kills and is responsible for death of the decedent, be allowed to inherit from his estate. In most jurisdictions of the United States, the slayer is prohibited by statute from taking by descent from the estate of the one he killed.
Suppose John, being of sound mind, makes a will bequeathing the bulk of his estate to his grandson, Olabisi. Olabisi then murders John. Should Olabisi be allowed to enforce the will and inherit from John? The courts answer no. Because wills never contain an express provision disinheriting the testator’s slayer, traditionally, the answer has been thought to mean that the courts are sacrificing testator’s donative intentions for the interest in deterring murder.
Normally, one who thinks there is a danger that someone he names in his Will as a beneficiary might kill him would not name that person in his will. The rule against allowing the slayer to inherit, serves the function of providing an implied term to govern remote contingencies. Very few testators if asked whether they would want their killer to inherit from their estate would say yes but, should their desire be honored by the law? Should the Slayer rule apply to accidental, as well as to deliberate, homicides? And should it apply under intestacy?
Howard Mahoney died intestate on May 6, 1961, of gunshot wounds. His wife, Charlotte Mahoney, the appellant here, was tried for his murder in the Addison County Court and was convicted by the jury of the crime of manslaughter in March, 1962. She was convicted to serve a sentence of not less than 12 nor more than 15 years at the women reformatory in Rutland. (Estate of Mahoney, 126 Vt.31, 220 A.2d 475 (1966)).
Howard Mahoney left no issue, and was survived by his wife and his father and mother. His father Mark Mahoney was appointed administrator of his estate, which at the present time amounts to $3,885.89. After due notice and hearing, the probate court for the district of Franklin entered a judgment order decreeing the residue of the Estate of Howard Mahoney, in equal shares, to the father and mother of the decedent. (Estate of Mahoney, supra). The issue before the court is whether a widow convicted of manslaughter in the death of her husband may inherit from the decedent’s estate.
The general rule of descent provide that if a decedent is married and leaves no issue, his surviving spouse shall be entitled to the whole of decedent’s estate if it does not exceed $8,000. (14 V.S.A. § 551(2)). Based on the statute, it is only when the testator leaves no surviving spouse or issue, does his estate descend in equal shares to the surviving father and mother. (14 V.S.A. § 551 (3)).
There is no statutory provision in Vermont regulating the descent and distribution of property from the decedent to the slayer. The question presented was one of first impression in the jurisdiction. In most jurisdictions, there are statutes enacted, which in certain instances, prevents a person who has killed another from taking by descent or distribution from the person he killed. (23 Am.Jur.2d Descent and Distribution § 98, p. 841). Courts in those states that have no statute preventing a slayer from taking by descent or distribution from the estate of his victim, have followed the following principles:
The first principle is to allow the slayer to retain title to property held by him in spite of his crime. The reasoning for so deciding is that devolution of the property of a decedent is controlled entirely by the statutes of descent and distribution. Further, the idea is that by denying inheritance to the slayer because of his crime would impose an additional punishment for his crime not provided by statute, and would violate the constitutional provision against corruption of blood. (Carpenter’s Estate, 170 Pa. 203, (1875); Wall v. Pfanschmidt, 265 Ill. 180, (1914); Bird v. Plunkett et al. 139 Conn. 491 (1953)).
Under the second principle, legal title will not pass to the slayer because of the equitable principle that no one should be permitted to profit by his own fraud, or take advantage and profit as a result of his own wrong or crime. (Riggs v. Palmer, 115 N.Y. 506 (1989); Price v. Hitaffer, 164 Md. 505 (1933); Slocum v. Metropolitan Life Ins., 245 Mass. 565 (1923)) such decisions have been criticized as creating an exception on the statute of descent and distribution and being ‘unwarranted judicial legislation.’ (Wall v. Pfanschmidt, supra).
The legal title passes to the slayer but equity holds him to be a constructive trustee for the heirs or next of kin of the decedent. This disposition of the question presented avoids a judicial engrafting on the statutory laws of descent and distribution, for title passes to the slayer. But because of the unconscionable mode by which the property is acquired by the slayer, equity treats him as a constructive trustee and compels him to convey the property to the heirs or next of kin of the deceased.
A constructive trust simply put, is a way equity uses to remedy unjustified retention of title to property acquired in such circumstances. The holder of legal title May not in good conscience retain the beneficial interest. Equity shows its disapproval of his conduct by making him a trustee and then, compel him to keep the property on behalf of the next of kin or heirs of the deceased.
Despite the rules prohibiting the slayer from inheriting from the one he killed, there are situations where the slayer may not be denied title. The principle that one should not profit by his own wrong must not be extended to every case, where a killer acquires property from his victim as a result of the killing. For example, the slayer who killed while insane is not chargeable as a constructive trustee, or if the slayer had a vested interest in the property, it is property for which he would be entitled had the killing not occurred.
The principle to be applied is that the slayer should not be permitted to improve his position by the killing, but should not be compelled to surrender property to which he would be entitled if there had been no killing. The doctrine of constructive trust is involved to prevent the slayer from profiting from his crime, but not as an added criminal penalty. (Kelly v. State, 105 N.H. 240, p. 70; Restatement of Restitution, § 187(2) comment a). The following case is another example on the slayer’ culpability:
The appellant Charlotte Mahoney was convicted of manslaughter and not of murder. She claimed that while the Restatement of Restitution approves the application of the constructive trust doctrine, where a devisee or legatee murders the testator, such rules are not applicable where the slayer was guilty of manslaughter and not murder. (Restatement of Restitution § 187, comment e).
In the state of Vermont, an indictment for murder can result in a jury conviction on either voluntary or involuntary manslaughter. (State v. Averill, 85 Vt. 115, 132 (1911)) The legislature has provided the sentences that may be passed upon a person convicted of manslaughter, but provides no definition of that offense, nor any statutory distinction between voluntary and involuntary manslaughter. (13 V.S.A. § 2304).
On appeal, the court, found that the judgment of the probate court decreeing the estate of Howard Mahoney to his parents, rather than to his widow, was based upon a finding of the felonious killing of her husband by Mrs. Mahoney. Appellees asked the court to affirm the decree below by imposing a constructive trust on the estate in the hands of the widow.
The State Supreme Court determined that the probate court did not decree the estate to the widow, and then make her a constructive trustee of such estate for the benefit of the parents. Instead, it decreed the estate directly to the parents, which was in direct contravention of the statutes of descent and distribution. The probate court failed to follow the statutes of descent and distribution. Its decree was determined an error and therefore, must be reversed.
The probate court, in making its decree, used the record of the conviction of the appellant for manslaughter for its determination that the appellant had feloniously killed her husband. The jurisdiction of charging the appellant with a constructive trust on the estate of Howard Mahoney lies in the court of chancery, and not in the probate court. The Supreme Court determined that the probate court, lacked jurisdiction to impose a constructive trust on the estate in the hands of the appellant since its power does not extend to the establishment of purely equitable rights.
In its final ruling, the decree was reversed and remanded, with directions that the proceedings herein be stayed for sixty days to give the Administrator of the Estate of Howard Mahoney an opportunity to apply to the Franklin County Court of Chancery for relief. If application is so made, proceedings herein shall be stayed pending the final determination thereof. If application is not so made, the probate court for the District of Franklin shall assign to Charlotte Mahoney, surviving wife, the right and interest in and to the estate of her deceased husband, which the Vermont statutes confer.
The court’s ruling was based partly on the fact that the appellant was only convicted of manslaughter and not murder and since it is the intent to kill, which when completed, leads to the profit of the slayer, that triggers the application of constructive trust, the court below was in error by giving its ruling based upon a finding of the felonious killing of Howard Mahoney by the appellant. Also, the probate court lacked jurisdiction to impose a constructive trust on the estate due to limited power conferred on it by statute.