American United Life Ins. Co. v. Barber, Slip Copy, 2008 WL 1766916 (M.D.Fla. Apr 15, 2008)

Justin Barber was convicted in 2006 of murdering his 27 year old wife to collect on a $2.3 million life insurance policy. In an opinion I first wrote about last year [click here], the 1st DCA upheld a trial court order applying F.S. 732.802, Florida’s “slayer statute,” to disinherit Mr. Barber – even though his murder conviction was being appealed. In this interpleader action the federal district court for the Middle District of Florida came to the same conclusion by adopting, verbatim, the 1st DCA’s analysis of the governing Florida law. The following excerpts from the district court’s opinion frame the issue nicely:

Parrish argues that summary judgment should be granted in her favor. She argues that under Florida’s slayer statute the judgment in Barber’s criminal case is conclusive evidence of his responsibility for April’s death, thereby rendering him ineligible for any distribution of life insurance benefits. In opposition, Barber argues that his appeal must be decided before his criminal judgment is “final” under the statute.

.  .  .

The First District Court of Appeal rejected this same argument raised by Barber in a case involving the same parties under one of the other life insurance policies held by April.

On appeal, Appellant argues that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment because his conviction cannot be considered final before he has exhausted his appellate rights. This argument has previously been rejected. In Prudential insurance Company of America, Inc. v. Baitinger, 452 So.2d 140, 141 (Fla. 3d DCA 1984), the insured’s husband, who was the primary beneficiary of a life insurance policy, was found guilty of the insured’s murder. The probate court entered an order directing the insurance company to pay the policy proceeds to the personal representatives of the insured’s estate. Id. The insurance company appealed the order arguing that the husband’s conviction could not be considered final due to a pending appeal. Id. at 142. The Third District Court of Appeal examined the legislative intent behind section 732.802 and determined that amendments to the statute demonstrated the Legislature’s intent to make it more difficult for a killer to receive a financial benefit for his wrongdoing. Id. at 142-43. It concluded that the term “final judgment of conviction” meant an adjudication of guilt by the trial court, and it affirmed the trial court’s order directing the insurance company to pay the proceeds to the personal representatives. Id. at 143. See also Cohen v. Cohen, 567 So.2d 1015, 1016 (Fla. 3d DCA 1990) (holding that irreparable harm would not occur to a primary beneficiary, even if her conviction was reversed on appeal, if the estate was distributed to the remaining beneficiaries because she would be able to seek money damages from those beneficiaries).

We agree with the reasoning of the Third District in its finding that the Legislature intended a trial court’s adjudication of guilt to be final for purposes of section 732.802, even if appellate remedies have not been exhausted. We therefore conclude that the trial court properly granted summary judgment in favor of Appellee and accordingly affirm the judgment.

Barber v. Parrish, 963 So.2d 892, 893 (Fla.Dist.Ct.App.2007).

The Court is persuaded by this analysis by the state appellate court on this point of Florida law. While the Florida Supreme Court has not addressed this precise issue, the Court has not found any decision by the Florida courts that would call into question the conclusions reached by the First and Third District Courts of Appeal in Barber and Prudential. Thus, with Barber ineligible, Parrish, as contingent beneficiary, is entitled to the insurance proceeds.

Lesson learned:

As I’ve written before [click here], and as made clear by the federal court’s decision in this case and the 1st DCA’s prior opinion addressing the same set of facts, Florida’s slayer statute does NOT require a final murder conviction to apply.