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The Slayers Rule in New Jersey

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The attached article, written by partner Paul Rizzo, was published in the December 2020 issue of The Clarion, the Somerset County Bar Association’s newsletter. The article discusses the Slayer Rule, an old and somewhat obscure body of law recognized in New Jersey which prohibits anyone from profiting from intentionally causing the death of another. Mr. Rizzo and Nicholas Pompelio, Esq. of the firm have handled a number of cases involving the Slayer Rule. Its most frequent application is in cases concerning an individual causing the death of their spouse who then claims entitlement to joint property, accounts, or insurance. The rule prohibits such individuals from access to such assets. In the matters handled by Mr. Rizzo and Mr. Pompelio the assets were preserved for the benefit of children of such unfortunate families.

The Slayer’s Rule in New Jersey

There are, unfortunately, circumstances that occasionally arise in which an individual causes the death of another and may seek monetary benefit as a result of such death. It has long been established under the common law of the State of New Jersey that an individual who intentionally causes the death of another cannot receive any benefit, including insurance proceeds, upon the death of the victim. Swavely v. Prudential Insurance Co. of America, 10 N.J. Misc. 1 (1931). In that matter, the Court held that it would exercise its equitable powers to impose a constructive trust on monies obtained through the wrongdoer’s own conduct. The reasoning behind the law was the underlying principle that to protect human life and to discourage rather than encourage the unlawful taking of it, any benefit would be precluded. Similarly, under the common law heirs of an individual causing death may be denied a claim. In the matter of Whitley v. Lott, 134 N.J. Eq. 586 (1944), the Court denied the claims of siblings of an individual who had killed his wife and then committed suicide. The heirs had claimed that they were innocent parties and had a right to take from the wife’s estate even though her death had been brought about by the intentional acts of her husband. The Court denied recovery on the same policy that no one should be allowed to profit by their own wrongdoing. The Court noted that the principle had been accorded a very general application in equity and at law.

The Supreme Court again addressed the issue in 1952 holding that a murderer should not be allowed to retain title and property that had been acquired by his crime. Neiman v. Huff, 11 N.J. 55 (1952). An individual accused of a killing does not need to have been criminally charged for the principle to be upheld. Small v. Rockfeld, 66 N.J. 231 (1974).

In 1977, the New Jersey Wills and Probate Reform Act was codified as N.J.S.A. 3A:2A-1, et seq., which was adopted from the Uniform Probate Code, Section 2-803 (1969). It generally stated that one who intentionally killed another was barred from receiving any benefit by reason of death of the decedent to which the killer would otherwise have succeeded. In 1982, the statutory provisions of Title 3A became a part of Title 3B, and in 2004 the legislation was recodified under N.J.S.A. 3B:7-1, et seq., succeeding N.J.S.A. 3A:2A-83 with similar language relating to the intentional killing of the decedent. In 2005, the New Jersey Legislature further amended the statute to broaden the restriction on a killer’s recovery which is now set forth in N.J.S.A. 3B:7-1.1.

Prior to 2005, the statute had provided as follows: “A surviving spouse, heir or devisee who criminally and intentionally kills a decedent is not entitled to any benefits under a testate or intestate estate and the estate of decedent passes as if the killer had predeceased the decedent. Property appointed by the will of the decedent to or for the benefit of the killer passes as if the killer had predeceased the decedent.”

After 2005, the statute reads as follows: “Any joint tenant who criminally and intentionally kills another joint tenant thereby effects a severance of the interest of the decedent so that the share of the decedent passes as his property and the killer has no rights by survivorship. This provision applies to joint tenancies and tenancies by the entirety, joint accounts in banks, savings and loan associations, credit unions and other institutions, and any other form of ownership with survivorship incidents.”

The rule has continued that an accused need not be convicted of the death of the other. In the matter of In re: Karas, 192 N.J. Super. 107 (N.J. Law Div. 1983), affirmed as modified 197 N.J. Super. 642 (App. Div. 1984), the victim’s husband had caused her death. He was indicted, tried and acquitted of murder. However, the Court applied the provisions of the statute denying the right to benefits on the part of the joint tenant who had criminally and intentionally killed another joint tenant. The Court held that the statutory provision did not change the Court’s common law authority to impose a constructive trust on the husband’s one-half interest in joint property. The Court further noted that even if the husband had been acquitted in the criminal case, which required a more substantial burden of proof, the Court of equity would, nevertheless, conduct a hearing to determine if the killing was intentional.

The Court has also held than an individual should be precluded from recovering as a beneficiary from a life insurance policy where the individual causes the death of the other. In the matter of Bennet v. All State Insurance Co., 317 N.J. Super. 324 (App. Div. 1998), the husband murdered his wife by stabbing her to death in the presence of their children. Prior to the murder, each of them had taken out a life insurance policy naming the other as their respective beneficiary, and the husband’s mother as the contingent beneficiary under both policies. The beneficiaries of the decedent’s estate consisted of their four children. The estate filed an action seeking an award of the proceeds to be paid to the estate, and the Court granted a motion for summary judgment and disqualified the killer from receiving the proceeds of the life insurance policy.

The United States District Court has also applied the Slayer rule to preclude a killer’s recovery of a decedent’s life insurance proceeds. Provident Life and Casualty Insurance Co. v. Estate of Howard, 2010 W.L. 3703688 (D.N.J. September 13, 2010). The Court noted that the statute required that the killer forfeit all benefits under the policy and ordered the proceeds to the estate for distribution to the children in accordance with the terms of the policy.

The Court has further noted that there is no distinction where an individual has committed manslaughter as opposed to intentional murder. In the matter of Jackson v. Prudential Insurance Co. of America, 106 N.J. Super. 61 (Law Div. 1969), an insured’s death was caused from a gunshot wound inflicted by the wife. The wife was indicted for manslaughter, tried and convicted. She filed suit to attempt to obtain the proceeds of the policy of the insurance on her husband’s life which under normal circumstances would have been paid to her. The Court held against the wife, noting that the underlying principle is not so much whether a homicide is technically classified as murder or manslaughter or whether the manslaughter is voluntary or involuntary. The Court noted that the true test is whether the beneficiary intentionally took the life of the insured. The Court reasoned that it must determine from the conflicting proofs what had actually occurred and whether the homicide had been accidental or otherwise unintentional, or whether it had been intentional. The Court noted that regardless of the category in which the homicide was placed, the killing resulted from an intentional act on the part of the wife and not from an accident or carelessness and thus the wife was precluding from benefitting from the insurance policy.

In a subsequent matter, State v. Robinson, 136 N.J. 476 (1994), the New Jersey Supreme Court noted that a crime of passion/provocation manslaughter involves intentional killing, and thus would preclude the person committing the act from benefitting from such.

If retained in such a manner, an attorney should move quickly, by way of order to show cause to restrain the individual accused of the crime from dissipating any assets. The assets will remain frozen while the matter is litigated concerning the actions of a defendant. This is essential as any civil matter will likely be stayed pending the conclusion of criminal charges, which may take years. Counsel must move expeditiously to identify all assets and protect them from being dissipated. At the conclusion of the litigation, criminal and civil, the assets should be paid over to the proper heirs of the decedent.

Paul R. Rizzo’s practice encompasses personal injury litigation, medical malpractice, commercial litigation and representation of victims of crimes in civil litigation. Paul also has significant experience in the representation of public entities, including the Boroughs of Raritan, South Plainfield and New Providence.

DiFrancesco, Bateman, Coley, Yospin, Kunzman, Davis, Lehrer & Flaum PC (http://www.dbnjlawblog.com) is a full service law firm in New Jersey which provides a broad range of legal services.

The information contained in this blog is intended solely for informational purposes; it is a advertising publication of DiFrancesco, Bateman, Coley, Yospin, Kunzman, Davis, Lehrer & Flaum P.C.This publication is intended to alert recipients of developments in the law and is not intended to provide legal counsel, advice or opinion on any specific facts or circumstances. The contents are intended as general information only. You are urged to consult a member of this firm or your own attorney concerning your particular situation and any specific legal questio.