by: Begley Law Group

by Thomas D. Begley, Jr., Esquire, CELA

Occasionally, a personal injury case arises out of the intentional killing of one person by another.  Frequently, the killer is a family member of the decedent.  Under the Wrongful Death Act, normally the survival claim is paid to the estate of the decedent.  If there is a Will, the Will frequently leaves the decedent’s estate to the family member who was the intentional slayer.  If the decedent left no Will, the survival claim passes under the Intestate Statute, usually to another family member who could be the killer.

Under the New Jersey Slayer’s Act,[1]an individual who is responsible for the intentional killing of the decedent forfeits all benefits with respect to the decedent’s estate, including any intestate share, an elective share, an omitted spouse’s, domestic partner’s or child’s share, exempt property and a family allowance.  If the decedent died with a Will, the slayer’s share passes as if he or she predeceased the decedent.  For example, if the decedent is the wife of the slayer, her Will may leave everything to the husband (slayer), or if he fails to survive then to the children.  In that case, the slayer’s share passes as though he or she predeceased the decedent and, therefore, the slayer’s share would pass to the children.  If a decedent died intestate, the decedent’s intestate estate passes as if the killer disclaimed his share.

Personal Injury attorneys should be familiar with the Slayer’s Act.  There are cases where the plaintiff’s estate brings an action on behalf of a decedent who was murdered by another person, usually a family member, who would otherwise stand to inherit under the decedent’s will or a state intestacy statute. Typically, the statutes define a slayer as any person who participates either as a principal or as an accessory before the fact, in the willful and unlawful killing of any other person. Since the Act only applies if the killing was willful, there would appear to be an exemption for killings where the defendant pleads guilty to a charge that does not include intentional or is found guilty of involuntary manslaughter or where the defendant suffered from severe mental illness.

  • Penalty.The slayer is generally prohibited from acquiring any property or receiving any benefit as a result of the death of the decedent. Property is distributed as if the slayer had predeceased the decedent as to property that would have passed from the decedent or his estate and then on to the slayer including dower, curtsey, or rights to an elective share.
  • Joint Tenancies and Tenancies by the Entirety.Generally, if the property is owned by the slayer and the decedent as joint tenants or tenants by the entirety, one-half will pass to the slayer and one-half of the estate of the decedent, which will bypass the slayer as to that half.
  • Conviction as Evidence.A record of conviction of the slayer shall be admissible in evidence against a claim to property in any civil action.
  • Pre-Adjudication.Generally during the period of time from the decedent’s death to the conviction or acquittal of the slayer or alleged slayer, property that would otherwise pass to that person is held in escrow by the personal representative. If the alleged slayer is acquitted or found guilty of an offense not involving a willful slaying, he or she receives the property. If he or she pleads guilty or is convicted of a willful slaying, the property passes as if the slayer had predeceased the decedent.
  • Relative of the Killer.  It is interesting to note that a relative of the killer is also barred from inheriting through any governing instrument made by the decedent.  “Relative of the killer” means an individual who is related to the killer by blood, adoption or affinity, and who is notrelated to the decedent by blood, adoption or affinity. For example, if a husband intentionally killed his wife, a child of the husband who was not a child of the wife would not inherit, but a child who is born to the slayer and the deceased wife would inherit.  

In a Pennsylvania case, Joseph killed his parents and his twin brother. He was found “guilty but mentally ill on three counts of first degree murder.” His guardian ad litem contested the application of the Slayer’s Act to deny Joseph an interest in his mother’s estate. The court held that Joseph’s intestate interest in his mother’s estate is forfeited, because he is a slayer. The fact that the defendant was found guilty, although mentally ill, is sufficient for the application of the Slayer’s Act. If the defendant had been found “not guilty by reason insanity,” the right to inherit would be recognized.[2]

A related issue is whether funds forming a part of the potential inheritance can be used in the alleged slayer’s defense. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court decided that the assets of the victim’s estate could not be used to pay the expenses of the defense of insanity, at trial, of the adopted son, who was the alleged slayer. The court held that the purpose of the Slayer’s Act would be thwarted by the use of the victim’s assets.[3]

[1]N.J.S.A. 3B:7-1.1.

[2]McAndrew Est. (O.C. Div. Montg.), 5 Fiduc. Rep. 3d.

[3]Glenn Est., 450 Pa. 461 (1973).