Understanding how to conceptually "frame" a case, both factually and legally, is half the battle in litigation.  So even if an appellate decision from another state isn’t binding precedent in Florida, the way in which the case is framed by the appellate court can be instructive for Florida lawyers.  Which is all a long-winded way of saying Florida probate lawyers should take note of an interesting LAW.COM article entitled Appeals Court: Relatives Who Assist in Suicide Can Inherit Estate, reporting on a Wisconsin case where the appellate court ruled that even if a decedent’s wife and daughter helped him commit suicide, which is illegal in Wisconsin, they weren’t barred from inheriting his estate by Wisconsin’s slayer statute.

Click here for a copy of the Wisconsin appellate decision.

The Facts:

The following excerpt from the linked-to article provides a solid summary of the key facts:

Edward Schunk, 63, shot himself in 2006 in a cabin on his property while he was terminally ill with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of cancer. He left an estate valued at nearly $500,000.

The court ruled in favor of his wife, Linda, and youngest child, Megan Schunk, now 20, who were granted most of the estate under Schunk’s will.

Schunk’s six older children received little or nothing, according to court records. Five of them challenged the will, arguing that Linda and Megan Schunk took Schunk to the cabin, gave him a loaded shotgun and left even though they knew he was suicidal.

The two acknowledged they took him home from the hospital on a one-day pass but denied assisting his death. They said he had told them he wanted to go turkey hunting.

For the purposes of deciding the dispute, the court assumed the other children’s allegations were true but still ruled in favor of the wife and younger daughter.

Under Wisconsin law, assisting in a suicide is punishable by up to six years in prison. Thursday’s ruling did not address that law, and no one has been charged in Schunk’s death.

Slayer Statute Analysis:

The Wisconsin opinion turned on whether the bold text of the following sentence, which is found in both the Wisconsin and Florida slayer statute, includes assisting someone to commit suicide:

A surviving person who unlawfully and intentionally kills or participates in procuring the death of the decedent is not entitled to any benefits under the will or under the Florida Probate Code, and the estate of the decedent passes as if the killer had predeceased the decedent.

The Wisconsin appellate court held that "unlawful and intentional killing" within the meaning of its slayer statute did not include assisting another to commit suicide. 

Assisted Suicide Statute Analysis:

It’s interesting to note that the Wisconsin court ruled as it did even though Wisconsin, like Florida [F.S. 782.08], makes it a crime to help someone commit suicide. Here’s how the Wisconsin court distinguished its assisted-suicide statute from its slayer statute:

The objectors point out that WIS. STAT. § 940.12 makes it a felony to “with intent that another take his or her own life assist[] such person to commit suicide….” Thus, they assert, Linda and Megan acted unlawfully and the facts show they intended to help Edward commit suicide. However, “unlawful” and “intentional” modify “killing” by limiting its meaning. If, as we have concluded, assisting another to commit suicide is not “killing” another, it does not become so because the conduct is unlawful and intentional.