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Mississippi Court Decides Application of Slayer Statute to Mentally Disabled Person for First Time

In 2010, John Armstrong, a Mississippi man suffering from severe schizophrenia, delusions and paranoia, killed his mother, Joan Armstrong, by bludgeoning her repeatedly with a brick and stabbing her multiple times in the stomach and chest. Due to his severe mental illness the criminal court found him incompetent to stand trial, and instead he was placed in a psychiatric hospital for lifelong treatment.

What are Slayer Statutes?

Most U.S. states have some version of “Slayer Statute,” which precludes someone from inheriting from an estate if he or she caused the person’s death. Some states vary, however, in how they apply the rule. For instance, in some jurisdictions, the killing must be intentional or willful. In others, even negligent and reckless conduct that causes the death would preclude the person from receiving their inheritance. Texas does not have a slayer statute.

What happens if the “slayer” is incompetent?

In John’s case, his siblings moved the probate court to invalidate John’s share of the inheritance, and the trial court agreed. However, John’s court-appointed guardian ad litem appealed the decision. In 2014, the matter was reversed. Mississippi courts had not previously determined whether a murderer who is declared mentally unfit could be precluded from inheritance triggered by the murder. The appellate court found that because John was not competent to stand trial for murder, this implied he could not have “willfully” committed the murder.

Under that state’s civil code, willful means that the “actor has intentionally done an act of unreasonable character in disregard of a risk known to him or so obvious that he must be taken to have been aware of it, and so great as to make it highly probable that harm would follow.”

Further evaluation needed

According to the Mississippi appellate court, since the civil and criminal codes have different standards for determining intent or willfulness, a separate hearing would be necessary to determine whether at the time of the killing, John actually acted willfully, as required by the civil code. The court further held that “all evidence which will throw any light on the issue of whether or not this killing was willful is competent and admissible.”

New York’s Slayer Statute

Much like Mississippi’s law, New York does not permit one to inherit from somebody they killed. As early as 1889, New York established this broad principle in Riggs v. Palmer that “no one shall be permitted to profit by his own fraud, or to take advantage of his own wrong, or to found any claim upon his own iniquity, or to acquire property by his own crime.” Over the years, this rule has been construed to apply to murder and other intentional conduct.

Many people would still want to provide for their loved one who is suffering from severe mental illness, even if such a tragedy should occur. For those with an heir who suffers from severe behavioral or psychiatric disorders, it may be wise to plan ahead to determine how adequately provide for that heir in the event such a terrible event should take place. Estate planning attorneys can establish special trusts and other mechanisms to avoid such results.

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