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May 2016

Arizona’s “Slayer Statute” Tested in Court

Ryan Scharber, Chandler Estate Controversy Attorney

The statute’s purpose is to prevent a person who kills someone from inheriting or receiving their victim’s benefits or property, but its scope is not without limits.

As with the recent deaths of celebrities such as Robin Williams and David Bowie, last month’s passing of rock legend Prince Rogers Nelson prompted much attention to his personal affairs and his inadequate estate planning.

Tragic Deaths

In contrast, closer to home the tragic deaths of five everyday people sparked a different kind of estate controversy, one involving Arizona’s “slayer statute” and a ruling by the Arizona Court of Appeals in which Hoopes Adams & Alexander attorneys represented one of the parties.

The case began in 2012, when a Phoenix man, who it was later learned was suffering from a brain tumor, killed his wife and three children before taking his own life. The man’s mother-in-law sued his estate for the wrongful death of her daughter and was awarded $1 million.

Meanwhile, the husband’s estate was also sued by business creditors, who were awarded $965,000. Both judgments were valid, but the husband’s estate could not fully satisfy both of them.

Slayer Statute

In an attempt to satisfy her judgment in full, the wife’s mother asked the probate court to impose a “constructive trust” against the assets of the husband’s estate. The request was based on Arizona’s slayer statute (A.R.S. § 14-2803), the purpose of which is to prevent a person who kills someone from inheriting or otherwise receiving any of their victim’s benefits or property.

While the statute most commonly comes into play when the killer has been criminally convicted for his actions, it can also be used to disinherit killers who avoid conviction. In such a case, an interested person asks the probate court to determine that, under a less burdensome standard of evidence, the killer would have been found criminally accountable for the victim’s death.

Shortly before the murder-suicide described above, the Arizona legislature amended the slayer statute to allow the victim’s estate to petition the court for a constructive trust on the killer’s estate, with the intended purpose of securing the payment of damages and judgments arising from the killer’s actions that resulted in his or her criminal conviction.

The wife’s mother relied on that statutory provision to protect the judgment that she had been awarded, but the probate court denied her request for a constructive trust, correctly noting that, in the absence of a criminal conviction, the slayer statute did not apply.

Outcome

The probate court's ruling was appealed, but the Arizona Court of Appeals upheld our position, leaving the wife’s mother and the husband’s creditors on more or less equal ground in seeking to satisfy their judgments from the assets of the husband’s estate. The Court’s ruling also shed new light on the interpretation of an important, though rarely invoked, statute.

• More about Estate Controversy