Beneficiaries Who Kill: The Slayer Statute

Often times, when a standard living trust is created by married couples in California, it’s structured in a way that the first one to die leaves everything to their surviving partner for his or her benefit. After the second spouse dies, the remaining trust property is then passed down according to the terms of distribution.

When both spouses are still living, many estate planning attorneys in California may also advise them to name each other as beneficiaries on their retirement accounts or life insurance policies. These may also be referred to as “Transfer on Death” (TOD) / “Pay on Death” (POD) designations. In the case that a spouse is named as primary beneficiary over a child or a trust, he or she would receive full benefits from such policy outright at their partner’s death. Of course, while we would hope that both spouses are comfortable waiting until the other dies of old age to collect, this isn’t always the case.

People killing their family members for inheritance payouts is not just a plot point we see in made-for-TV movies. We hear about conspiracies to commit murder in the news all the time, even as recently as this week in New York state—yesterday, on February 5th, 2020, the NY Times reported that resident Karl Karlsen was convicted of killing his son and wife to collect their life insurance benefits. Not every case like this is motivated purely by money, but the financial gain that many perpetrators stand to receive is undeniable.

This is where the slayer statute comes in. Simply put, the slayer statute was created to prohibit monetary gain of a person convicted of killing another. CA Probate Code Section 254 defines ‘slayer’ as “a person who feloniously and intentionally kills the decedent” of which they are inheriting from. Such a ‘slayer’ would not be entitled to any property, interest, or benefit under a will of the decedent, a trust created by or for the benefit of the decedent or in which the decedent has an interest, or any property of the decedent by intestate succession. In California, this also include non-probate life insurance beneficiaries (see CA Probate Code Section 252).

One real life example of the slayer statute in action is the case of Scott and Laci Peterson. On Christmas Eve of 2002, an eight-month pregnant Laci disappeared under suspicious circumstances from her home in Modesto, California. Her body was eventually found in the spring of 2003 and she was determined to have been murdered. Her husband Scott was arrested five days later, convicted in 2004, and then sentenced to death in 2005.

While on death row, Scott was told he would not receive his wife’s life insurance benefits of which he was the primary beneficiary. While he was intended to have received all $250,000 at Laci’s death, his first-degree murder conviction was argued as proof that he had “feloniously and intentionally” murdered her, despite the lack of a final judgement. Scott, unable to provide sufficient evidence showing otherwise, lost his case in Principal Life Insurance v. Peterson.

If you have any questions about this statute or how California Probate Court works, please consult a qualified attorney for guidance.

B.B.

The information on this website is for general information purposes only. Nothing on this site should be taken as legal advice for any individual case or situation. This information is not intended to create, and receipt or viewing does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship. Brittany Britton is licensed to practice law in the state of California only.

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