Murder Most Foul . . . Visiting the “Slayer Statute” in Illinois

This article visits three cases with a common denominator: murder. We all have an intuitive and visceral understanding that if you kill someone from whom you may inherit, you ought not inherit (the “unworthy heir” concept). This common sense notion has found a home in most State statutes, and these statutes have an ominous-sounding name: “slayer statutes.” It will come as no surprise that sometimes these common sense statutes need a little fleshing out. . .

Dougherty v. Cole

Jack Jason Cole, Jr. heard voices. He would later be diagnosed as suffering manic episodes “with psychotic features,” but in 2008 the voices told Jack that his mother was an enemy. He took the advice of the voices and beat and stabbed his mother to death. At his criminal trial, Jack was found not guilty of first degree murder by reason of insanity.

Jack’s sister, Alycia, was appointed administrator of her mother’s estate. Alycia filed a complaint against her brother in the probate proceedings requesting the judge rule that her brother, as their mother’s killer, should not be allowed to inherit as a result of the “slayer statute” in effect in Illinois. As you might have seen coming, Jack had a moment of clarity and disagreed.

Let’s parse the slayer statute. The Illinois statute provides, simply, that a “person who intentionally and unjustifiably causes the death of another shall not receive any property, benefit or other interest by reason of the death, whether as heir, legatee, beneficiary, joint tenant, survivor, appointee, or in any other capacity.”

This version of the slayer statute was included in the Probate Act in 1983; prior versions (captioned a bit more bluntly “Heir Murdering Ancestor”) required the slayer to be convicted of the crime before being disinherited. The 1983 version did not require criminal conviction; it only requires that the probate court judge determine that the killer intentionally and unjustifiably caused the death.

Jack argued that he should have to be convicted of the crime before he would be disinherited, but the judge didn’t buy it. He then raised the issue that due to his mental incapacity, he could not be found to have intentionally murdered his mother. The judge in his opinion thoughtfully distinguished the quality of intent that is necessary to be convicted in a criminal proceeding from the general intent that one’s actions have consequences. That is, when the knife came down, Jack intended to kill his mother -- he may lack the understanding of the criminality of his acts to justify conviction of a crime, but he nevertheless knew her death would likely result.

The judge applied the slayer statute and Jack was disinherited.

Estate of Malbrough

As if the slayer statute was not enough, in 2004, a new provision was added to the Illinois Probate Act called "Financial Exploitation, Abuse, or Neglect of an Elderly Person or a Person with a Disability." The new provision prevented any person convicted of financial exploitation, abuse, or neglect of an elderly person from receiving "any property, benefit, or other interest by reason of the death of that elderly person . . . whether as heir, legatee, beneficiary, survivor . . . or in any other capacity."

The definitions of "abuse" includes not only obvious physical abuse, harassment or intimidation, but also acts that endanger the elderly person's life or injure his or her health, acts of abandonment, and actions that a caregiver "knows or reasonably should know are necessary" to preserve the elderly person's life or health. The law also targets "neglect," which addresses passive conduct more than overt abuse, such as when a caregiver negligently fails "to provide adequate medical care or maintenance" and this failure causes physical or mental injury or deterioration.

This 2004 statute is broader than the "slayer statute" in that it prevents a person from inheriting or receiving property from the decedent's estate -- even if the abuse, neglect, or financial exploitation was not directly related to the elderly person's death. In this way, this newer statute endorses the notion that an unworthy heir should not profit from any type of bad behavior directed at the decedent.

However, the new statute is also narrower than the "slayer statute" because it does require an actual criminal conviction in order for it to take effect.

There is an subtle intersection between the old slayer statute and the 2004 addition. That is, even without a criminal conviction for financial exploitation, abuse, or neglect, it is still theoretically possible in Illinois to prevent an elder-abuser from inheriting or benefiting from the elderly decedent's estate by means of the original slayer statute, if the abuse or neglect "intentionally and unjustifiably" caused the death of the elderly victim. The Illinois case, Estate of Malbrough, addressed this very issue.

In Malbrough, the brother of decedent Ira Malbrough asked the probate court to block a $3 million inheritance from going to Ira's wife, Graciela. Ira’s brother claimed that Graciela had caused Ira's death by intentionally denying him care, and that the "slayer statute" should apply. Due to his blindness and incapacity, Ira had been completely dependent on Graciela for care. For years he required an oxygen machine and in-home care from a health services agency.

Ira’s brother supplied affidavits as evidence of Graciela’s neglect. They described alleged instances of abuse and neglect by Graciela. Ira’s caregivers repeatedly found Ira's oxygen machine turned off leaving Ira "unresponsive with blue lips and fingertips." At other times, Ira begged his caregivers for food and water and they found Ira's soiled clothing often unchanged. Over Graciela's many objections, Ira was finally admitted to the hospital in April, 1998, where he passed away six days later. Ira’s death certificate listed his cause of death as renal failure and congestive heart failure. According to the complaint filed against Graciela, renal failure is caused by "prolonged denial of food and liquid."

The Cook County Circuit Court agreed with Graciela's response and dismissed the complaint. However, appellate court reversed and sent the case back for a determination of whether Graciela had caused Ira's death. The appellate court noted that the death certificate's finding that Ira's death was caused by renal and congestive heart failure did not preclude further inquiry into the cause of his death. Thus, even though Graciela was never convicted or even charged with any crime in connection with her husband's death, at least one Illinois court was persuaded that she may have intentionally and unjustifiably caused his death, precluding her from any inheritance under the slayer statute.

In other States, gross neglect toward a decedent has been insufficient to deprive the heir of his or her inheritance under applicable slayer statutes, but Illinois seems willing to apply the probate code's "slayer statute" a bit more expansively.

Willingham v. Matthews

For our last visit to the slayer statute, we head South and look at a recent Alabama case.

Joshua and Brandy Matthews were married 7 years; but that marriage ended tragically. In 2011 Joshua shot and killed Brandy then trained his gun on himself and committed suicide. There were no criminal charges arising out of this tragedy since the murderer died alongside the victim. Ahh, but there was a fight over inheritance, involving the novel question of whether Brandy’s family should inherit from Joshua’s estate.

Brandy and Joshua both died without Wills. Brandy’s mother, Debora Willingham, was appointed administrator of Brandy’s estate; in Joshua’s estate, his brother, Rodney Matthews, was appointed. Willingham filed a complaint asking a court to declare that Joshua’s estate should pass to Brandy’s family. Although an instinctive sense of fairness says that this is an appropriate and equitable outcome – after the harm Rodney caused. But getting to that outcome demanded a skewed application of the Alabama slayer statute.

The relevant provisions of Alabama law, §43-8-253, provides that a “surviving spouse, heir or devisee who feloniously and intentionally kills the decedent is not entitled to any benefits under [Alabama law], and the estate of decedent passes as if the killer had predeceased the decedent.”

Alabama’s statute – as with Illinois’s version and all other similar statutes -- have a common goal: preventing a slayer from inheriting from the victim’s estate. The technical way in which this is usually accomplished is that the slayer is treated as having predeceased the victim, which knocks the slayer out of the line of inheritance.

The straightforward application of this statute in Brandy and Joshua Matthews’s case is that Joshua would be barred, as a slayer, from inheriting from Brandy’s estate, even though as the surviving spouse he would otherwise be first in line to inherit from Brandy’s estate. But the Matthews case that reached Alabama’s highest court raised a different question—whether Brandy’s family could inherit from Joshua’s estate as a result of his wrongdoing.

Because Brandy died first, she would not be eligible to inherit from Joshua’s estate because heirs must survive the decedent in order to inherit. But for the slayer statute, Joshua would inherit from Brandy’s estate, even though he died only a few hours later. It didn’t matter that Joshua did not survive long enough to enjoy the inheritance —his heirs or the beneficiaries under his Will would benefit in his place.

The question raised in Matthews then is whether the distribution of Joshua’s estate should vary simply because he murdered Brandy before taking his own life. Her mother argued that the policy behind slayer statute should mean not only that Joshua cannot inherit from Brandy, but also that she (and thus her family) should inherit from him. Rodney, Joshua’s brother, responded to this argument by rightly pointing out that the slayer statute only addresses the distribution of the victim’s estate, not the slayer’s estate.

The trial court agreed with him and entered judgment in his favor declaring that Alabama’s slayer statute had no application to the distribution of Joshua’s estate. On appeal, the Alabama Supreme Court agreed with the trial court that a straightforward reading of the slayer statute did not support Willingham’s claim. Willingham had nothing to support her position, except a naked appeal to justice or emotion. The statutory text was simply not susceptible to her interpretation despite the emotional appeal it might carry.

One wonders why in the Matthews case this tortured approach was taken instead of a more conventional wrongful death action. It would likely have been successful, and put Brandy’s estate (and her family) in the same economic position had the court agreed with the upside downing reading of the slayer statute.

The bottom line in Matthews: while not every case involves gruesome facts like this one, there are many cases in which estates are distributed to conniving, and unlikeable – and yes, perhaps undeserving -- parties. But the law will not step in to assign inheritance rights based on merit.


Nothing contained in this article should be taken as legal advice for your specific situation. Consultation with competent counsel prior to implementing any legal strategy is highly recommended.

Categories: Firm News, Publications