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Public Policy and the Boomerang Inheritance

Slayer statutes are continuously evolving when it comes to whether a murderer’s relative can inherit from the victim’s estate

Although slayer statutes – laws preventing murderers from inheriting from their victims – have been around for centuries, they’re continuously evolving as courts struggle to apply them to the particular facts of each new and sordid case.  For example, when a murderer would, or even potentially could, indirectly inherit part of the victim’s estate through an innocent relative, is the relative barred from inheriting?  There’s no uniform answer to this question.  Courts and legislatures in the jurisdictions that have addressed this question have typically focused on whether to disinherit the murderer’s heirs.  Even fewer jurisdictions have laws governing what to do when a murderer might inherit through one of the victim’s relatives.  One jurisdiction that traditionally has is Illinois, in an appellate court decision from 20 years ago.  However, it appears that the rule in Illinois has recently changed.

The Old Rule

Illinois’ Slayer Statute provides that “[a] Person who intentionally and unjustifiably causes the death of another shall not receive any property, benefit or other interest by reason of the death….”When the statute applies, it provides that the property, benefit or interest passes as if the slayer died before the victim.

In 1995, in In re Estate of Mueller, an Illinois Appellate Court was presented with a question of first impression – whether a decedent’s adopted children were barred from inheriting under his will when their biological mother (and the decedent’s wife) had arranged to have him murdered.2  The wife pled guilty, and there was no question that she was barred from inheriting anything from her husband’s estate.  Despite receiving a 10-year sentence, however, she was released early.  By the time the Mueller court was called on to decide the issue of her sons’ inheritance, she was already out and was the guardian of one son, who was still a minor.

Although Illinois’ Slayer Statute only bars “[a] person who intentionally and unjustifiably causes the death” from inheriting, the Mueller court was troubled by the fact that the wife would almost certainly both control and indirectly benefit from her son’s inheritance.  On the specific facts of the case, the court found that the likelihood of indirect benefit to the mother was too great and therefore ruled that both of her children were barred from inheriting as well. 

For the next two decades, Mueller was the law in Illinois.  It wasn’t without significant criticism, however.  The Mueller opinion suggested that in each case, the trial court would need to make a factual determination as to whether allowing a relative of the murderer to take in the place of the murderer was likely to confer a significant benefit on him.  The problem with that approach, as explained by Judge Posner, is that “it requires an inherently speculative judgment about the future and an investigation of family relations quite likely to be of Faulknerian opacity.”3 Perhaps for this same reason, many states had already considered and rejected the methodology set forth in Mueller

The Murder of Irene Opalinska

On June 18, 2007, Chicago police responded to a call from Darota Opalinska, reporting that she’d just discovered her mother Irina’s body in the bathtub.  Darota gave a statement to the police that day.  As they investigated the murder over the coming months, however, her story changed several times.  Eventually, DNA evidence and corroborating telephone records implicated Darota’s husband, Chabon.  Chabon was eventually charged and convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to 45 years in prison.  As it turned out, Darota wasn’t involved in the murder, but tried to help her husband cover it up after the fact.  After a bench trial, she was found guilty of perjury and obstruction of justice.  Her punishment was 30 months of probation.

Mueller Implicitly Overruled

Recently, in trying to wrap up Irene’s estate, an appointed public administrator argued that the Slayer Statute should bar Darota from inheriting under her mother’s will.  Pointing to Mueller, the administrator argued that Chabon, although incarcerated, could indirectly benefit from Darota’s inheritance.  The trial court rejected the administrator’s argument, giving the Appellate Court occasion to revisit the logic of Mueller.4

On appeal, the court first looked to the plain language of Illinois’ Slayer Statute.  The statute says nothing about disinheriting innocent heirs, regardless of whether the murderer might indirectly inherit through them.  Further, the statute only requires the court to treat the murderer as having died before the victim.  Thus, the court reasoned that while Chaban must be treated as having predeceased his mother-in-law, nothing would stop property from passing to her daughter.  If Chaban were to receive any of Irene’s estate, it wouldn’t be because of her death, but instead would be because Darota transferred the property to him. 

In short, the court held that the plain language of the Slayer Statute doesn’t support barring anyone other than the murderer from inheriting.  This objective rule avoids the slippery slope of the approach outlined in Mueller, in which courts could essentially end up imposing a kind of “reverse constructive trust” – potentially following the assets for years – to ensure that the murderer doesn’t receive the property through indirect means.5

The Opalinska court made a point to distinguish Mueller, however, noting that the murderous mother in that case had been released from prison and would have actually controlled the inheritance of her minor children.  The court went on to explain that while it agreed the mother in Mueller should have been prevented from controlling her children’s inheritance, there was no language in the statute to support disinheriting anyone other than the murderer. 

More to Come

Despite the seemingly precise holding, the Opalinska decision raises new questions of its own.  It’s unclear exactly why the Opalinska court found it necessary to distinguish the facts of Mueller when, apparently, it would have reached a different decision on those same facts.  As a result, in the immediate wake of the new rule, the law in Illinois is now murky.

Endnotes

1. 755 ILCS 5/2-6.

2. In re Estate of Mueller, 275 Ill. App. 3d 128 (1st Dist. 1995).

3. Prudential Ins. Co. v. Athmer, 178 F.3d 473, 478 (7th Cir. 1999).

4. In re Estate of Irene Opalinska, No. 1-14-3407, 2015 IL App (1st) 143407 (Nov. 5, 2015).

5. See Prudential Ins. Co. v. Athmer, 178 F.3d 473, 476.

 

 

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