Tag: common law slayer rule
A rare but important rule of the common law which sometimes arises in the context of estate litigation is the so-called “slayer rule,” on which we have previously written.
The slayer rule follows from the principle of ex turpi causa – that one cannot profit from their own crime – in that a beneficiary who is found guilty to have murdered the giftor/testator of their particular benefit consequently loses their benefit.
For example, if a daughter was found to have murdered her mother, rather than accelerating her inheritance, she would lose whatever benefit she was entitled to receive under her mother’s will.
The most recent appearance of the slayer rule in Ontario estates law occurred in a March 2021 decision, The Bank of Nova Scotia Trust Company v Rogers, in which a son was convicted of murdering his parents and was subsequently sentenced to two life sentences without the possibility of parole for 20 years.
The parents had mirror wills providing first for each other, and then for their son, as an alternative beneficiary. If their son were to predecease them (or otherwise lose his entitlement – as was the case), then the next alternative beneficiary was to be the son’s “issue then living in equal shares per stirpes.”
As the son did not yet have any issue, the judge’s dilemma was whether to wait for further distribution until he died, or to skip forward to the next named beneficiaries in the will. For a multitude of reasons, including public policy and the implied intention of the testators, the judge decided upon the latter option, which would result in an equal division of the residue of the estate among the deceased mother’s three brothers.
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Recently, I experienced a series of coincidences involving American filmmaker Wes Anderson. In the span of a handful of days, I came across the newly-released trailer of his upcoming film, The French Dispatch, and had the opportunity to revisit his 2014 hit, The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Not having seen the latter in several years, I had entirely forgotten a key plot point involving a handful of curious estate planning decisions. Although the film was released six years ago, I nonetheless attach a mild spoiler warning.
The plot of the film revolves around a specific bequest of a work of art made by one of the characters in the film, Madame D. The painting, Boy with Apple, is left to Ralph Fiennes’ character, Gustave H, the proprietor of the film’s namesake hotel, per Madame D’s (purported) Last Will and Testament.
Her decision to leave the painting to Gustave, rather than her nephew, Dmitri, creates a firestorm of controversy, not least of all because Dmitri accuses Gustave of murdering his aunt in order to secure
his entitlement to Boy with Apple. In reality, it is strongly hinted in the film that Dmitri is responsible for her murder. As an additional twist, a further Last Will and Testament executed by Madame D is discovered later, which appears to leave the entire residue of her estate, rather than just Boy with Apple, to Gustave. However, it is stated in the film that this further Last Will is only to be given effect in the event that Madame D is murdered.
This single plot point raises a number of points of discussion and policy concerns as to what would transpire if the film were set in Ontario. This blog will explore the nature of Dmitri’s and Gustave’s potential entitlements in the Estate.
Prior blogs have explored the concept of common law forfeiture rules in Canada, which preclude an individual from deriving a benefit from their own morally culpable conduct. Colloquially known as the “slayer rule” in the context of a testator-beneficiary relationship, a beneficiary who is found to have caused the unlawful death of a testator will be deemed at common law to have predeceased the testator, thereby extinguishing any interest in the testator’s estate.
In the film, Dmitri accuses Gustave of the murder of Madame D. In the ordinary course, a conviction proper is not a necessary precondition to the applicability of the slayer rule. Rather, common law suggests that the rule applies strictly in the event that the beneficiary’s deliberate act caused the death of the testator. In theory, Gustave’s interest in the estate of Madame D could be in jeopardy despite the lack of culpability. In practice, despite his efforts to frame Gustave, the evidence would likely show that Dmitri was the culprit, thereby extinguishing any interest in Madame D’s estate.
Of course, the further Last Will purportedly being given effect only in the event a murder adds a further layer of discussion, and will be explored in greater detail in part 2 of this blog.
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The common law slayer rule makes the law in Canada clear that committing murder will prevent a person from inheriting the estate of the victim. For clarity, the accused must be found guilty and exhaust all of their rights to appeal before the courts will void a testamentary gift or beneficiary designation.
In the cases of Helmuth Buxbaum and Peter Demeter, who were found guilty of murdering their wives, the court refused to allow the men to benefit from their crimes by collecting the proceeds of their wives’ insurance policies. Pursuant to the case of Demeter v British Pacific Life Insurance Co.,  OJ No 3363, a criminal conviction will be accepted as proof of criminal activity in civil cases. Therefore, a person who has been convicted of murder cannot argue in civil court proceedings that he or she is innocent and capable of accepting a testamentary gift.
Recently, in Minneapolis, an individual named Michael Gallagher killed his mother, and around a year later, is attempting to obtain her life insurance proceeds. According to an article in the Toronto Star, bedbugs were infesting the apartment of Mr. Gallagher’s mother, and he believed that she would be evicted from her home, and decided to “send her to heaven.” The law in Minnesota is similar to the law in Canada, and their legislation states that an individual who “feloniously and intentionally kills the decedent is not entitled to any benefits under the will.”
This case turns, however, on the fact that Mr. Gallagher was not convicted for murdering his mother. In July, a Judge found that he was not guilty due to reasons of mental illness, stating that he “was unable to understand that his actions were wrong.” This finding allows Mr. Gallagher to potentially have a claim to his mother’s life insurance policy.
In Canada, a similar finding is known as NCRMD (Not Criminally Responsible on Account of Mental Disorder). If this case took place in Canada, it is likely that Mr. Gallagher would have been found NCRMD. This raises the important question of whether an individual, who is not convicted of murder, but has killed somebody, is still able to claim the proceeds as a beneficiary a testator’s estate or life insurance.
In the case of Nordstrom v. Baumann,  SCR 147, Justice Ritchie stated, “The real issue before the trial judge was whether or not … the appellant was insane to such an extent as to relieve her of the taint of criminality which both counsel agreed would otherwise have precluded her from sharing in her husband’s estate under the rule of public policy.“ The court held that the public policy slayer rule does not apply if the individual was found NCRMD at the time of the killing. Furthermore, in the case of Dreger (Re),  O.J. No. 2125 (H.C.J.), the court held that “[the] rule of public policy [that a person found not guilty for murder] cannot receive property under the will…the only exception to this rule is that a person of unsound mind is not so disqualified from receiving a benefit under the will of a person he has killed while in law insane.“ Lastly, the recent case of Dhingra v. Dhingra Estate, 2012 ONCA 261, upheld a similar finding and allowed the NCRMD individual to apply for the deceased`s life insurance policy.
The law in Ontario seems to uphold the principle that a mentally ill individual who was unable to understand the consequences of their actions should not be automatically disentitled to life insurance proceeds.
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