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., [1984] 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, [1962] 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), [1976] 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.

Thanks for reading,

Ian M. Hull

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