Tag: Slayer Rule
In the 1944 film-noir classic Double Indemnity, Fred MacMurray plays Walter Neff, a successful salesman at Pacific All Risk Insurance. He has an affair with Phyllis Dietrichson, the wife of a client, played by Barbara Stanwyck, and the two concoct a classic caper: To kill her husband, make it look like an accident, and collect the insurance money.
The title takes its name from a clause in some life insurance policies that would double a benefit in the case of accidental death, like falling off a train, the fate that allegedly befell Mr. Dietrichson and energizes a very suspicious Edward G. Robinson to find out the truth.
While Billy Wilder’s classic film trips up the protagonists’ best-laid plans at several turns, the aim of the insurance company is to uncover a fraud (it would be up to the courts to determine the killer). At law, such a concept is caught by what’s known as the Slayer Rule.
Cleaver et al. v Mutual Reserve Fund Life Association established a general rule of public policy that forbids a criminal from profiting from his or her own wrongdoing. The facts were these: A husband had taken out an insurance policy for the benefit of his wife. The policy was to pay out in the event of his death to the wife, should she be alive, otherwise to his estate. The husband died leaving a Will, the wife was convicted and imprisoned for poisoning him, and Cleaver was appointed administrator of her assets. The insurance benefit was denied to the wife on public policy grounds, and was instead paid out to the estate. In Latin, it’s known as ex turpi causa (“from a dishonourable cause an action does not arise”) and it has been Canadian law since Cleaver was decided in 1892.
One of the most important developments over the last century has been the critical element of moral culpability under section 16 of the Criminal Code of Canada as it relates to the Slayer Rule and insurance entitlements. In the 2012 decision Dhingra v. Dhingra Estate, the Ontario Court of Appeal reversed a lower court’s decision that applied the Rule to a person found not criminally responsible (NCR), holding,
“It seems to me that if a person found not criminally responsible on account of mental disorder is not “morally responsible” for his or her act, there is no rationale for applying the rule of public policy. That rule is founded in the theory that people should not profit from their crimes or, more broadly, by their own wrongs. […] It was an error for the application judge to describe the appellant as having “committed second degree murder.”
So, while an NCR designation may permit the courts to clear a path for the release of the insurance benefit, the following scenarios are still treated as black letter law when a killer strikes, is in their right mind, and:
1) Where insurance proceeds are in question;
2) Where the slayer is a beneficiary under a will;
3) Where the slayer is an heir of his intestate victim;
4) Where the slayer and the deceased were joint tenants.
Thanks for reading!
Ian Hull and Daniel Enright
This past weekend I had the great pleasure of seeing the movie Knives Out by Rian Johnson. For those of you who have not yet seen it I would highly recommend it, especially for those interested in estate law. Although I will try my best to avoid any significant spoilers for those who have not yet seen it, if you don’t want to know anything about the movie before seeing it you should stop reading this blog now.
The plot of Knives Out offers some interesting considerations for those interested in estate law, as it centers around the possible murder of the patriarch of an affluent family, with the alleged motive for many of those accused being that he was going to cut them off and write them out of his Will. While I was watching the movie I couldn’t help but analyze the cases of some of those accused, and whether there were estate law related options that would have been available to them that would not require them to commit murder (I promise that I am fun at parties and that this job has not ruined me).
Knives Out gets into a surprising amount of detail regarding certain estate law concepts, discussing such concepts as “undue influence” in relation to those who would have benefited from the new Will, as well as the “slayer rule” which would result in any individual who was involved in the murder not being entitled to receive a benefit from the estate for public policy reasons. The movie also gets into the concept of “testamentary capacity“, and whether the deceased would have had the capacity to draft the new Will which would have cut the various individuals off.
While watching the movie the one thing that kept running through my mind was that most of the accused family members would appear to have fairly strong arguments that they were dependants of the deceased even if they were cut out of his Will. The movie makes it fairly clear that the deceased was financially supporting a majority of his family members, with his threats to cut them off financially forming the foundation of the motivation for why they may or may not have killed him.
If the deceased had indeed cut these family members out of his Will, and this matter took place in Ontario, there would appear to be a fairly strong argument that those family members that were cut out of the Will were dependants of the deceased under Part V of the Succession Law Reform Act, insofar as the deceased was providing support to them immediately prior to his death and he did not make adequate provision for them in his Will. If these family members were found to be dependants of the deceased, the court could make an order providing for their support from the deceased’s estate regardless of whether they were left anything in his Will. Although I will concede that a long and drawn out court case where various family members assert they are dependants of the deceased is probably a less interesting film than an Agatha Christie style murder-mystery, if Knives Out were real life it is unlikely that many of the family members would ultimately receive nothing from his estate (assuming, of course, they were not involved in his death).
Thank you for reading.