Joaquin Perez had a life insurance policy with a death benefit of $250,000. His son and daughter were equal beneficiaries of the policy. Mr. Perez was tragically shot and killed by his mentally-ill son. The son was ultimately found not guilty of his father’s murder by reason of insanity. The question then became, does Florida’s Slayer Statute apply in this case even though there’s no murder conviction?
What’s the slayer rule?
At common law, a person couldn’t inherit property from someone they murdered. This was known as the “slayer rule.” You’d be surprised how often this rule comes up in inheritance cases (see here, here, here, here).
Florida codified the common-law slayer rule in F.S. 732.802. Here’s the operative text as applied to life insurance policies:
(3) A named 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 not entitled to any benefit under the bond, policy, or other contractual arrangement; and it becomes payable as though the killer had predeceased the decedent.
Does Florida’s Slayer Statute require a murder conviction to apply? NO
Florida’s slayer statute doesn’t require a criminal murder conviction to apply. In the absence of a criminal murder conviction, the statute can be litigated in a civil case for inheritance purposes only. Also, while a criminal conviction requires proof “beyond a reasonable doubt,” Florida’s Slayer Statute applies only in the civil context to inheritance claims, which means the statute applies the much lower “greater weight of the evidence” burden of proof standard applicable in civil cases. Here’s the operative text of F.S. 732.802:
(5) A final judgment of conviction of murder in any degree is conclusive for purposes of this section. In the absence of a conviction of murder in any degree, the court may determine by the greater weight of the evidence whether the killing was unlawful and intentional for purposes of this section.
Does the evidentiary burden-of-proof distinction between criminal and civil cases matter? Yes!
A person who’s acquitted of the crime of murder can still lose all his inheritance rights in a separate civil case under the exact same set of facts applying the lower burden of proof that controls in civil trials. In other words, the same murder trial can happen in two different courts, rely on the exact same evidence, and result in opposite outcomes.
The most famous example of this kind of opposite-outcomes-civil-vs-criminal case is the O.J. Simpson murder trial, where he was found both not guilty (in his criminal trial) and guilty (in his civil trial) for the same murders (Simpson was ordered to pay $33.5 million to the families of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald L. Goldman in the civil case).
In this case the court was asked to decide if the decedent’s son forfeited his rights to a share of his father’s life insurance money in spite of the fact that he was never convicted of murder. Son never responded to the civil suit. The court entered the following order confirming that YES, F.S. 732.802 actually means what it says: son is still disinherited, even though he’s not a criminally-convicted murderer.
The Court concludes that the evidence establishes Matthew unlawfully and intentionally killed his father. Notably, it is of no import that Matthew was ultimately found not guilty by reason of insanity because the Slayer Statute provides that “[i]n the absence of a conviction of murder in any degree, the court may determine by the greater weight of the evidence whether the killing was unlawful and intentional.” Fla. Stat. § 732.802(5). Also, for purposes of the Slayer Statute, the killing can be considered intentional and unlawful despite a finding of criminal insanity. See Congleton v. Sansom, 664 So. 2d 276 (Fla. 1st DCA 1995). Notably, in Congleton, a husband strangled his wife to death. He was charged with murder but was adjudicated not guilty by reason of insanity, never having gone to trial. The Slayer Statute was still applicable in the probate proceeding, even though the husband was never criminally convicted. Notably, the Court underscores that Matthew’s default in this action serves as his admission of the cross claim’s well-pled allegations, which include that he intentionally and unlawfully killed the Decedent.
In sum, the Slayer Statute provides that a beneficiary to a life insurance policy or other contractual agreement who unlawfully and intentionally kills the insured is not entitled to any benefit under the policy and it becomes payable as though the killer had predeceased the decedent. Additionally, the subject policy provides that a beneficiary’s interest in the policy ends if such beneficiary is determined to have predeceased the insured. The policy also provides that if there is a single surviving beneficiary, the amount payable will be the entire Death Benefits. Accordingly, Cristina is considered the single surviving beneficiary pursuant to the provisions of Fla. Stat. § 732.802(3) and the language of the subject policy and is therefore entitled to the entirety of the Death Benefits.