Tag: common law slayer rule
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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Public policy performs an important role in estate law. Among other things, it may remedy situations where the bequests contained in a will or pursuant to the laws of intestacy would lead to a result that offends Canadian values.
For instance, it is well settled in Ontario that someone who murders another person cannot benefit by inheriting their estate. They are also precluded from receiving any insurance proceeds. However, in common law Canada, depriving a murderer of such benefit (also known as the “common law slayer rule”) is as far as the Courts have been willing to go.
In contrast to civil law jurisdictions around the world (including the province of Quebec here at home, as well as many states in the United States) and subject to public policy considerations, common law Canada has stuck firmly by its system of no-fault inheritance.
The primary concern with having a no-fault inheritance regime is that we sometimes end up with absurd results. For example, imagine the child abandoned by one parent as an infant. Should that child die intestate as an adult without a spouse or children of their own, that same parent (if alive) could be entitled to either half or all of the estate.
Outside of common law Canada, this is traditionally where the doctrine of unworthiness to inherit has stepped in. In Quebec, these rules are codified in the Civil Code of Quebec.
Article 620 provides:
The following persons are unworthy of inheriting by operation of law:
(1) a person convicted of making an attempt on the life of the deceased;
(2) a person deprived of parental authority over his child, with the exemption for the child from the obligation to provide support, with respect to that child’s succession.
Article 621 adds:
The following persons may be declared unworthy of inheriting:
(1) a person guilty of cruelty towards the deceased or having otherwise behaved towards him in a seriously reprehensible manner;
(2) a person who has concealed, altered or destroyed in bad faith the will of the deceased;
(3) a person who has hindered the testator in the drawing up, amendment or revocation of his will.
Perhaps one of the most common uses of these rules has been as an alternative to undue influence claims. Undue influence is notoriously difficult to prove and often, while it is clear that there has been some influence and even some pretty reprehensible behaviour in caring for an aging parent, the claim falls short of reaching the higher standard of coercion.
In this way, the unworthy to inherit principle has been able to step in and look not only narrowly at the influencer’s role in causing the will to be drafted but at the behaviour displayed towards the older person throughout their entire life. This widening of the net, so to speak, has been an important recourse in addressing the growing problem of elder abuse.
As discussed in my previous article, the U.S. has also moved towards the termination of inheritance rights for certain marital misconduct, including abandonment, abuse, and even adultery in some states. Whether this will be extended to non-spousal relationships, as is the case in most civil law jurisdictions, remains to be seen.
Thank you for reading.