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Commit Murder, Inherit a Fortune?

It’s a common trope in crime fiction: a wealthy relative writes a will leaving a large sum of money to a family member – a child or niece/nephew, for example. Unwilling to wait for nature to take its course, the greedy beneficiary arranges to have the benefactor murdered, or even does the deed himself.

While situations like this are rare in real life, they do happen on occasion. Obviously, allowing a person to inherit money from someone they’ve murdered is fundamentally unjust. Thankfully, the majority of states have laws dealing with these situations. Usually, if a beneficiary is convicted of killing the benefactor, they can’t inherit.

It appears, however, that some states don’t have such laws, and a worst-case scenario (also reported here) is coming to pass.

A man who confessed to killing his mother-in-law during an attempt to steal some of her jewelry (apparently to support his heroin habit) is going to inherit about $250,000. The victim’s will left all of her assets to her only daughter (the killer’s wife). The daughter’s will, in turn, left all of her assets to her husband. The daughter inherited all of her mother’s assets when her mother died. She died about a year later, while her husband was in jail, meaning that he is, at least on paper, entitled to his victim’s fortune. After serving up to 25 years in prison, as part of a plea deal, the killer will be released, and presumably have access to that money. And this guy is pretty young, so he’ll only be in his 40s when he’s released, meaning he’ll have time to enjoy the money.

This seems to be an unfortunate loophole in so-called “slayer statutes” (laws that bar killers from inheriting anything from their victims), and it’s not clear what type of modifications could be made to the law to avoid these results. After all, assuming the daughter had nothing to do with her mother’s death, should she be barred from inheriting her mother’s fortune, based on the possibility that the money might find its way to her killer? Most would say no, I think.

So, what can be done in a situation like this? It’s possible that the court, depending on the laws and judicial precedents of the state, could set up a constructive trust, which is an equitable remedy designed to avoid unjust enrichment. Basically, this is set up when a court can’t outright transfer ownership of something from one person to another, but it would be extremely unjust to let the legal owner maintain possession and control of the asset.

In this case, the court might be able to craft an arrangement whereby the killer retains legal ownership of the money, but in name only. He would essentially hold the money in trust for someone more worthy of it; presumably his victim’s surviving family members.

So, it’s at least possible that the courts can avoid allowing this guy to profit from committing murder.

However, reading some comments on online articles covering this story, I’ve seen a few somewhat-disturbing sentiments. Some people are calling on the state to simply seize the money and hand it over to someone more deserving, with or without legal authority to do so.

This sentiment is perfectly understandable. The idea of a murderer being able to profit, even indirectly, from his crimes would leave a bad taste in anybody’s mouth. However, it’s essential to remember, especially in situations like this, that the government is just as bound as the rest of us (perhaps more bound) to follow the law.

Living in a civilized society of ordered liberty has its costs. Those costs include the occasional guilty criminal defendant going free, and a viscerally unfair result when the rule of law is upheld.

While the law of wills and trusts, particularly the laws covering what is to be done with an inheritance when the beneficiary kills or attempts to kill the testator, works fairly well, and prevents criminals from being unjustly enriched in the vast majority of cases (and, thankfully, such cases are rare to begin with). However, when an unusual case like this comes up, which the law isn’t completely prepared to deal with, an unfair result might result. If lawmakers deem this to be a major problem, they can try and tweak the law to make such results less likely in the future.

What we shouldn’t do, however, is toss the law out and do whatever we want because it would make us feel better. Sure, if it happened in this particular case, I wouldn’t feel sorry for the guy, and I’d be happy to see his victim’s estate go to someone more deserving.

But if we toss out the rule of law when it’s convenient, or when a sufficient number of people perceive it as fair, we will have started down an extremely dangerous path.

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Ken LaMance

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