Is A Murder Conviction Necessary To Trigger A Slayer Statute?
Most states, including Florida, have a “slayer statute,” which denies an inheritance to a beneficiary who killed the deceased person. But is a murder conviction required to trigger a slayer statute? A recent Federal opinion holds that a murder conviction is not required for the Florida slayer statute to apply, only that the court determine it “more likely than not” that the person wrongfully caused the death of the decedent.
Florida’s Slayer Statute In Federal Interpleader Action
In Stephenson v Prudential, (MD Fla. 2016), the deceased, Mr. Rigby, owned a life insurance policy naming his domestic partner, Mr. McGriff, as beneficiary. As a result of a physical altercation between Rigby and McGriff, Rigby died. This left everyone fighting about who was entitled to Rigby’s life insurance proceeds.
McGriff filed a claim with Prudential for the life insurance death benefit. Rigby’s estate also made a claim for the death benefit. Prudential Insurance Company then filed an interpleader action in federal court in Florida.
What Is An Interpleader Action?
An interpleader action allows someone holding funds which are subject to competing claims of other parties to deposit the funds with the court and be dismissed from any further liability. As explained by the Court:
Interpleader is appropriate where the stakeholder may be subject to adverse claims that could expose it to multiple liability on the same fund. In an interpleader action, the burden is on the party seeking interpleader to demonstrate that he is entitled to it, or more specifically, that he has been or may be subjected to adverse claims. When the court decides that interpleader is available, it may issue an order discharging the stakeholder, if the stakeholder is disinterested.
Interpleader is the means by which an innocent stakeholder, who typically claims no interest in an asset and does not know the asset’s rightful owner, avoids multiple liability by asking the court to determine the asset’s rightful owner. [An] Interpleader action proceeds in two stages. At the first stage, the court determines whether interpleader is proper and whether to discharge the stakeholder from further liability to the claimants. At the second stage, the court evaluates the respective rights of the claimants to the interpleaded funds.
The Court granted the interpleader action and dismissed Prudential out of the case except for the issue of its entitlement to attorney fees.
A Lower Standard Of Proof For Florida’s Slayer Statute vs. Criminal Prosecution
Florida’s slayer statute is found at § 732.802(3) and provides:
“A named beneficiary of a . . . life insurance policy . . . who unlawfully and intentionally kills . . . the person upon whose life the policy is issued is not entitled to any benefit under the . . . policy . . .; and it becomes payable as though the killer had predeceased the decedent.”
McGriff argued that, because he was not prosecuted for the death of Rigby, and thus there was no murder conviction, the slayer statute could not be applied against him. In rejecting this argument, the Court held that prosecution and a murder conviction was not required for application of Florida’s slayer statute as follows:
To begin with, the fact that the State Attorney declined to prosecute McGriff for Rigby’s death does not resolve the issue of whether McGriff is precluded from collecting the life insurance proceeds under Florida Statute § 732.802. The State Attorney would have had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt McGriff’s guilt in unlawfully causing Rigby’s death. Conversely, Florida Statute § 732.802 precludes McGriff from collecting the life insurance proceeds if this Court determines by the greater weight of the evidence that McGriff’s killing of Rigby was unlawful and intentional. Thus, the standard of proof is much lower to preclude McGriff from collecting the life insurance proceeds. As such, the fact that the State Attorney declined to prosecute McGriff for Rigby’s death has no bearing on the application of Florida Statute § 732.802. See Fla. Stat. § 732.802(5)(stating that “[i]n the absence of a conviction of murder in any degree, the court may determine by the greater weight of the evidence whether the killing was unlawful and intentional for purposes of” § 732.802).