The Slayer Rule

I took my Trusts and Estates exam today.

No, I'd rather not talk about it.

Instead, let me tell you about a question that started nagging at me while I was studying for the exam last night.

The Uniform Probate Code (not available online per se, unfortunately -- this is actually a reference to Montana's version, which is close but not identical) includes a section known as the "slayer rule." The actual rule is fairly simple:

(2) An individual who feloniously and intentionally kills the decedent forfeits all benefits . . . with respect to the decedent's estate . . .

Thus, if you name me in your will, and I murder you, I don't inherit from you. In answer to what I'm sure is your first question (it was mine): no, even if you put a clause in your will saying "Even if James murders me, I still want him to inherit," I don't inherit from you. This is a serious rule of public policy against murder. So the exercise is, how far will that rule of policy go . . .

First off, the statute only mentions benefits from the estate of the person I kill. But it's easy to cook up a scenario in which by killing you, I inherit from a third person. For example, I kill you knowing that your great-uncle has made a will which says "to my great-nephew, but if he dies before me, than to James." Before your uncle can learn of my perfidy, he too dies. I don't think there's a court that follows the UPC that wouldn't exclude me from taking -- even though the inheritance doesn't come through your estate. The relevant UPC text is a little further down:

(6) A wrongful acquisition of property or interest by a killer not covered by this section must be treated in accordance with the principle that a killer cannot profit from the killer's wrong.

I'm still a killer, so the court won't let me profit by my wrong. But we can push this one further. What if, for example, I don't actually commit murder, but "merely" do something else obviously evil? Perhaps you are a dog, and the money is meant to care for you after your owner's death. By killing you, I terminate the "animal trust" and take the proceeds. Cruelty to animals is reprehensible, but not felonious.

Or, what if I commit feticide to prevent the birth of the child whose birth would trigger some will condition preventing me from inheritance? Or, as I put it to Steven, "Suppose I kick you in the nuts so you can't have kids. Am I barred?" (To be clear: these examples are straining at the definition of "killing" in (6) above. The point is that we can move, by stages, from acts everyone recognizes as killings, to acts most people don't regard as killings).

And so it goes. I do something calculating and evil, as a result of which, I get money through the system of inheritance. The question is: will that system step in to stop me from getting the money?

My intuition is yes, under all my hypoes, I will be barred. Not because there's a specific law involved, but because there's a deeper principle at work here, a powerful principle against unjust enrichment. People who do wrong shouldn't profit from their wrongdoing, and courts take that principle very seriously--so seriously in fact, that the lack of a law precisely on point won't stop them from upholding it as far as they can. Indeed, I think we'd be scandalized if they did otherwise.

The real law will never get in the books.