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It's The Law: Murderer May Not Inherit

Q: Anna Nicole Smith’s death continues to make headlines as those around her are prosecuted for providing her drugs. It appears the drugs killed her. Can you inherit someone’s property if you killed her?

A: In Florida, it is unlikely a murderer can inherit from his victim. Florida has adopted what is known as a “slayer statute” at Section 732.802 of Florida Statutes. The statute provides that anyone unlawfully and intentionally killing or participating in procuring death of a decedent is not entitled to any benefits under the will or the Florida Probate Code. The estate of the decedent passes as if the killer died before the decedent. Even if a will or trust provides for distribution to the killer, the distribution is prohibited.

The statue artificially kills off the wrong-doer before the death of the person he or she killed. That means the wrong-doer gets nothing. It does not mean that the wrong-doer’s children or grandchildren get nothing.

Under Florida law, if someone dies before the decedent, a gift to that person by will or trust is distributed to the person’s surviving descendants unless the will or trust makes it clear that the gift is only made to the beneficiary if he or she survives the decedent.

The statute also includes property owned jointly with right of survivorship. The surviving owner of such joint tenancy normally owns the entire property. Under the Statute, the survivor only owns the survivor’s half and the decedent’s share passes as the decedent’s property. The statute makes it clear it applies to jointly owned real estate, multiple party financial accounts and any other form of ownership with survivorship.

Any beneficiary of a bond, life insurance policy or other contractual arrangement who unlawfully and intentionally kills the principal obligee or the person upon whose life the policy is issued is also barred from benefit and the proceeds become payable as though the killer predeceased the decedent.

Even before the statute, Florida observed public policy prohibiting a person from benefitting from wrong doing. In the 1951 case of Ashwood v. Patterson, a husband murdered his wife and then committed suicide. Long before the slayer statute was enacted, Florida’s Supreme Court ruled that their estate by the entirety in real estate was severed by the murder and one half of the property was held by each of their estates rather than the murdering husband as survivor.

Despite the clear intent of the statute and relatively clear wording, there has been substantial litigation when someone kills another and wants to inherit the decedent’s assets. Most of the time, the killer loses. However, there have been exceptions.

The burden of proving disqualification to inherit under the slayer statute rests on those opposing the inheritance. Unlawful and intentional killing or participation procuring death of the decedent must be proved by a preponderance of the evidence, a much easier test to meet than that in a criminal case, which is beyond a reasonable doubt. Conviction of murder in a criminal case is conclusive under the Statute to bar inheritance. Acquittal is not conclusive. Because criminal charges must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, acquittal does not foreclose meeting the lesser civil standard.

In the case of Congleton v. Sansom, the widower, Mr. Smith, choked his wife to death. He was acquitted on murder charges, but was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter. Involuntary manslaughter does not require intent so the conviction did not automatically disqualify the widower from inheriting assets of his wife. This was made painfully clear to Mr. Smith when the appellate court ruled the personal representative of his wife’s estate had proven by a preponderance of the evidence that Mr. Smith violated the slayer statute and was therefore barred from inheriting his wife’s assets.

Although the statute has a reduced evidentiary requirement of preponderance of the evidence, it still requires proof of intent. A person who is legally insane may be acquitted of criminal action and successful in inheriting from a decedent because the insane person lacks the ability to formulate intent to kill or procure death.

Although Florida’s statute is broad in scope, a murderer is only disqualified from getting the decedent’s portion of jointly owned assets, life insurance and similar contract benefits. An estate’s ability to “claw back” attorney’s fees and expenses has not been clearly addressed by Florida courts. Nevertheless, it is safe to say that killing someone to inherit wealth is a plan that is likely to go awry.

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