Within the last few months, the Georgia Slayer Statute has become front and center in a case that’s garnered significant national attention. It involves the death of a very prominent and successful businesswoman from Atlanta, Diane McIver. According to numerous published reports, Diane died from a gunshot wound suffered while riding in the front seat of a car driven by her driver while her husband, Claud “Tex” McIver, was sitting in the backseat behind her. Tex, a prominent Atlanta attorney, apparently contends that he fell asleep with a loaded pistol in his lap (which he had retrieved because he believed they were driving through an unsafe part of Atlanta) and that the gun accidentally discharged when he awoke suddenly.
Back in the Day
There are moments in time when something happens and people collectively think “well, that must be against the law." Such must have been the widespread reaction throughout the State of Georgia when, in July 1947, Carl Keith inherited the assets (including proceeds from a life insurance policy) from the estate of his late wife, Ruby Keith. Carl and Ruby were married and had no children. Carl murdered Ruby then fled, remaining at large for eight years. While running from the law, Carl somehow learned that his late wife had a life insurance policy and that the proceeds of the policy had been paid to the administrator of her estate. Carl re-emerged to claim his wife’s assets as he was her only heir at law. Understandably, Ruby’s family objected to her murderer inheriting her assets, in particular, the life insurance proceeds. They filed suit, alleging that they should be deemed Ruby's sole heirs and that Carl be prohibited from inheriting his wife's assets by virtue of having murdered her.
Notwithstanding what must have seemed like a very strong case, Ruby’s family lost and Carl got the money. In framing the issue before the court, the Georgia Supreme Court stated, “[t]he sole and controlling question in the case presented is whether a husband who murders his wife can inherit from her estate.”1 Surely, Ruby’s mother and siblings, as well as the vast majority of the good people in Georgia, assumed that the answer to this question is quite obviously, “no.” On some level, the Georgia Supreme Court agreed stating, “[u]pon first impression it is the natural human and judicial impulse to say that he cannot” inherit his wife’s assets.2 The court, however, continued that, “[l]egal rights are not so determined; and when this initial effect upon our senses has subsided and a dispassionate analysis of the law is made, we find no legal barrier to his rights to so inherit.”3 The court then simply reasoned that when a married woman dies intestate and without any children, her husband becomes her sole heir. The court noted that nothing in Georgia’s statute provided for an exception when a decedent’s heir also caused his death and admonished, “[t]he law being clear and explicit, the evil, if any, can only be corrected by the General Assembly, and not by judicial action.”4
The General Assembly ultimately made the correction that the Georgia Supreme Court suggested, although it took a while. In 1952, the Georgia legislature passed the first version of the “Slayer Statute.” It originally prohibited inheritance by someone who with “malice aforethought” killed “another for purpose of inheriting the property of the deceased.” It was amended several times over the years, and today provides as follows:
An individual who feloniously and intentionally kills or conspires to kill or procures the killing of another individual forfeits the right to take an interest from the decedent’s estate and to serve as a personal representative or trustee of the decedent’s estate or any trust created by the decedent.5
For the purposes of the Slayer Statute, feloniously and intentionally killing someone is defined as murder, felony murder, or voluntary manslaughter.6 The same statute also prohibits a “slayer” from serving as a personal representative or trustee of the deceased’s estate or related trust.7 A similar statute prohibits a “slayer” from receiving life-insurance proceeds, which typically pass outside of probate.8
So What Happens Now?
Getting back to the McIvers, on a personal level, theirs is certainly tragic, regardless of whose version of events is to be believed. Purely from the estate administration perspective, it also illustrates the details in the operation of Georgia’s Slayer Statute. At first, it was unclear whether any criminal charges would be brought in connection with Diane’s death, but in December 2016, Tex was charged with involuntary manslaughter. This charge seemed consistent with Tex’s version of events wherein his gun accidentally discharged, killing his wife. Under the Slayer Statute, even a conviction of involuntary manslaughter wouldn’t operate to disinherit Tex because involuntary manslaughter doesn’t meet the definition of intentional and felonious killing under the statute. Thus, when he was charged with involuntary manslaughter, even a conviction would allow him to inherit his wife’s presumably significant assets.
Upon further investigation, however, the case took an even more interesting turn. According to an article in the Fulton County Daily Report, which covers legal proceedings in the Atlanta area, investigators had reason to believe that Diane had a second will, which presumably treated Tex less favorably than her first will. Based in part on this evidence, Tex was then re-indicted and charged with malice murder. Under this new charge, the provisions of Georgia’s Slayer Statute would in fact cause Mr. McIver to lose the right to inherit from his wife. While the criminal case is pending, the Fulton County District Attorney’s office has also sought to remove Tex as the executor of his wife’s estate.
As of the date of this writing, Tex is being held in jail without bond; he vigorously maintains his innocence. Resolution of his criminal case is likely months away. Resolution of his wife’s estate may be even further away. Georgia’s Slayer Statute can be triggered by both criminal and civil proceedings. A criminal conviction of murder, felony murder or voluntary manslaughter conclusively disinherits the slayer.9 An acquittal doesn’t, however, end the issue. Even if Tex is ultimately acquitted, a civil proceeding can also trigger the forfeiture from the statute, provided the “felonious and intentional killing” is shown by clear and convincing evidence.10 Thus, it’s highly likely that this tragic case will go on for quite a while.
1. Crumbly v. Hall, 202 Ga. 588, 590 (1947).
2. Ibid., at 590.
5. O.C.G.A. Section 53-1-5 (a).
8. O.C.G.A. Section 33-25-13.
9. O.C.G.A. Section 53-1-5(d).