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Inheritance by Murder?

Most states have laws that prevent someone who has intentionally killed another person from being able to inherit any property from their victim. Generally, these laws are called “Slayer Statutes” and are designed to prevent individuals profiting in any way from the felonious killing of another, even in inheritance.

While committing a homicidal act obviously carries criminal consequences, a claim under the “Slayer Statutes” may be brought in civil court. This means that someone bringing a claim under the “Slayer Statute” does not have to prove the elements beyond a reasonable doubt, and merely has to prove their case by a preponderance of the evidence, which is just a fancy way of saying “more likely than not.”

Colorado’s version of the “Slayer Statute” is C.R.S. § 15-11-803, Effect of Homicide on Intestate Succession, Wills, Trusts, Joint Assets, Life Insurance and Beneficiary Designations. The law prevents anyone found to have committed a felonious killing, defined as the reckless or intentional killing of another, from receiving property from the victim’s estate. This includes property received via inheritance, beneficiary designations such as POD (Payable on Death) beneficiaries, life insurance proceeds, or the right of survivorship, such as when a surviving joint tenant takes title to property after the death of the others. However, there are some exceptions to the general rule.

The Colorado Supreme Court recently decided a case that involved the “Slayer Statute.” In a case titled In re Estate of Feldman, a husband was charged with the murder of his wife nearly three years after her death, and after he had already received a large amount of money in life insurance proceeds. 443 P.3d 66 (Colo. 2019). The husband transferred some of the life insurance proceeds to the trust account of his criminal defense attorney in order to fund his legal defense. The guardian for the husband’s two minor children filed a Petition in Colorado Probate Court to recover the life insurance proceeds pursuant to the “Slayer Statute.” The Probate Court used its equitable powers to order the criminal defense attorney to release the funds from the trust account.

On appeal, the Supreme Court of Colorado reversed. The Court held that even if the husband was found to be the killer pursuant to the “Slayer Statute,” the criminal defense attorney would not have to return the funds. This is because subsection (9) of C.R.S. § 15-11-803 provides that a person who receives payment in satisfaction of a “legally enforceable obligation” is not obligated or liable to return the funds. The Court held that money in a trust account, even if not yet fully earned by the attorney, is considered money received pursuant to a legal obligation.

In another recent high profile case, the “Slayer Statute” operated to deny the inheritance of Christopher Watts, who was found guilty of the first-degree murder of his immediate family. And, even if Defendant Watts had been acquitted of the crime, the family of the victims could have proceeded with a civil lawsuit seeking to deny him of any potential inheritance under the “Slayer Statute.” Therefore, while the “Slayer Statute” is not commonly invoked, it remains an important and necessary part of Colorado Law.

If you have questions about the "Slayer Statute" or any other estate planning questions, please give us a call on 970.241.5500.

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