The Slayer Rule – a frightening term for a frightening crime. In short, the Slayer Statute, addresses a murder motivated by inheritance. Like many mystery films of its kind, Rian Johnson’s 2019 Knives Out opens with a murder. Harlan Thrombey, a wealthy author, is found dead in his Massachusetts mansion. Although his death is first ruled as a suicide, private detective Benoit Blanc initiates an investigation of Thrombey’s fishy family, many of which are presumably interested in the late novelist’s massive estate.
And Now, Introducing the Slayer Rule
Surely, Thrombey must have been murdered by a beneficiary under his will. While not all states have versions of the Slayer Statute, most do. Suppose that the events of Knives Out take place in Texas, a state in which the slayer rule may apply, rather than Massachusetts. Can Thrombey’s alleged murderer inherit his wealth? This is an issue Texas courts have addressed numerous times. The judicial standard for a killer inheritor is a standard based in equity. Simply stated, the Texas Courts have found it would be inequitable (i.e. unfair) for a murderer to benefit from or due to their crime.
In cases of a murderer inheriting by means of a will, trust, or intestacy (in which there is no will or trust), the Texas Supreme Court has opined that “the law will impose a constructive trust upon the property of a deceased which passed either by inheritance or by will if the beneficiary willfully and wrongfully caused the death of the deceased.” Bounds v. Caudle, 560 S.W.2d 925, 928 (Tex. 1977). The constructive trust preserves the injurious inheritor’s right to hold title but prevents them from enjoying any beneficial interest in the inheritance. Essentially, only others will be able to benefit from the inheritance – not the murderer.
In cases of life insurance proceeds, the Texas Estates Code and the Texas Insurance Code have codified respectively:
- Texas Estates Code, Section 201.058(b) “If a beneficiary of a life insurance policy or contract is convicted and sentenced as a principal or accomplice in willfully bringing about the death of the insured, the proceeds of the insurance policy or contract shall be paid in the manner provided by the insurance code.”
- Texas Insurance Code, Section 1103.151 “A beneficiary of a life insurance policy or contract forfeits the beneficiary’s interest in the policy or contract if the beneficiary is a principal or an accomplice in willfully bringing about the death of the insured.”
There have been numerous cases of this in headlines over the years. Someone takes out an insurance policy on a friend or loved one, then has them eliminated to collect their insurance proceeds. The Texas Insurance Code is clear in saying that a murderer or accomplice is barred from receiving the proceeds as a beneficiary. A unique element in the Texas Insurance Code that is worth noting is that it does not require a conviction. On the other hand, The Texas Estates Code does. This leaves room for interpretation between both codes.
Where Does This Leave Us?
In conclusion, if Harlan Thrombey had been slain in Texas, the Texas courts would likely act in the interest of fairness and prevent the slayer from benefitting from the inheritance of Harlan’s estate. Additionally, if most of all of Harlan’s estate was held in life insurance policies, the Texas Insurance Code would also likely bar the murderer from receiving under the life insurance policy. Preventing a murderous inheritor from inheriting is an issue that must be raised to the court of the life insurance company. Fortunately, the slayer rule rarely comes up outside of Hollywood. For readers interested in previous articles on legal blockbusters, we suggest reading up on our favorite estate planning films. Nielsen Law PLLC provides family focused estate planning and probate services in the Austin, Round Rock, Cedar Park, and the Central Texas area. For more information and to learn about our firm, please contact us.