We thought it would be interesting to take a look at a little history and perspective on a common law rule in Maryland, versions of which can be found in the legal code created by Napoleon (“Code Napoleon”) and with
origins dating back to 6th-century Roman law. The current statement of Maryland’s “slayer’s rule” is that: “a person who intentionally and feloniously kills another may not share in the distribution of the decedent’s estate as an heir by way of statutes of descent and distribution or as a devisee or legatee under the decedent’s will, nor may the slayer collect proceeds as a beneficiary under a policy of insurance on the decedent’s life.” The simple explanation is that you cannot inherit by will or intestate succession and you may not receive life insurance benefits if you murdered the decedent, regardless of the will, laws of inheritance, or beneficiary designations.

Who would think that a close family member would actually murder a benefactor to get after their property? Well, in order to gain some perspective, let’s look at the first case in the United States to address the slayer rule, Riggs v. Palmer, 115 N.Y. 506, circa 1889. The story begins with a wealthy landowner by the name of Francis B. Palmer. In August 1880, Mr. Palmer made his Last Will and Testament in which he gave the majority of his property to his grandson, Elmer Palmer. Over the next few years, during which Elmer lived with his grandfather as a member of the family, young Elmer became aware of this large inheritance. Elmer also became aware of his grandfather’s increasing intention to revoke his Will, thus cutting off at least some portion of Elmer’s inheritance. So, in the words of the court, “to obtain speedy enjoyment and immediate possession of his property,” at the ripe old age of 16, Elmer did in fact poison his generous grandfather. The Court, citing public policy reasons, held that “one cannot take property by inheritance or will from an ancestor or benefactor whom he murders.” So unfortunately for young Elmer, he was out of luck. Although Elmer might not agree with the outcome, it certainly makes sense to us.

The initial New York version of the slayer rule has evolved through the years into the current Maryland version expressed in the opening paragraph. The most recent court opinion in Maryland addressing the slayer rule, Cook v. Grierson, 380 Md. 502, was handed down by the Court of Appeals in April 2004. The decedent in Cook died of multiple stab wounds inflicted by his son. His son pled guilty to murder and was sentenced to 30 years in prison. The decedent did not have a will and thus died “intestate.” Under Maryland’s slayer’s rule, the son was prohibited from inheriting from his father’s estate. But what about the son’s children?

The children of the slayer (the decedent’s grandchildren) brought an action to inherit from the decedent’s estate. The question presented to the court was whether the children of the slayer could inherit from the decedent’s estate through intestate succession. The Court of Appeals of Maryland held that the grandchildren could not inherit. In their opinion, the Court closely examined the language of Maryland’s intestate statutes. When an individual dies intestate (without a will), one class of beneficiaries entitled to distribution is known as an “issue.” The issue includes direct lineal descendants such as children, grandchildren and so on. The problem is that in Maryland, the issue does not include the descendants of a living person. The grandchildren in Cook, although direct lineal descendants of their grandfather, were not issued under Maryland’s intestate statute because their father, the slayer, was still alive.

The court stated that because the grandchildren were not part of a class entitled to inherit and had no claim against the estate independent of their father, they could not inherit.

The effect of this decision is to completely disinherit not only the slayer but the slayer’s entire family line. That result may be disastrous to innocent children of the slayer who have not only lost a parent to prison but
have also lost a potential source of income which could help sustain them following the loss of a caretaker. The court did mention that if the grandchildren had been named in a will as contingent beneficiaries, that may have supported an independent claim against the estate and salvaged their inheritance.

We hope you found this small look at an especially interesting part of estate law enlightening and somewhat entertaining. But what did we learn? First, always have a will naming possible contingent beneficiaries. Second, if you ever become concerned that one of your beneficiaries has questionable intentions, make sure a copy of this newsletter finds its way to their desk.