The New York Criminal Law Blog

You Can't Kill to Speed Up Your Inheritance or You'll Lose It!

You’ve heard of black widows. Not the spider — the human.

These are people who kill their spouse to collect insurance money or some other sort of financial benefit.

But in New York, there’s something called the slayer statute. It’s a law that crosses the line between criminal law and estate planning law. Here’s how it works:

Let's presume that a spouse killed in order to reap the benefits of the dead spouse's 401(k) plan, or to get the benefits of any other inheritance. Perhaps the surviving spouse was named as the insurance beneficiary.

How fair would it be to allow that surviving spouse the rights to the inheritance?

First off, the slayer statute doesn't only apply to spouses who kill. Any beneficiary who kills the donor will likely be cut out of the estate under this law. But the law is not that simple.

Of course, there's the "innocent before proven guilty" song. You can't assume that the surviving spouse was the killer simply because there was a large payout. That's like saying "the butler did it!"

It's not that easy, however. For example, what if a spouse kills the other spouse by accident? Does the slayer statute apply? What if the killer spouse was declared insane? What happens then?

In New York, the slayer rule is applied on a case-by-case basis. That means that it's not applied as a blanket rule in every single case. Courts look to the facts and circumstances of the case. Further, what's also not clear is which types of benefits the killer can lose entitlement to.

In short -- those who kill to speed up their inheritance need to think again. That plan is very, very flawed.

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