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Arizonas Slayer Statute Tested in Court
The statutes purpose is to prevent a
person who kills someone from inheriting or receiving their victims 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 months passing of rock legend
Prince Rogers Nelson prompted much attention to his personal affairs
and his inadequate estate planning.
In contrast, closer to home the tragic deaths of
five everyday people sparked a different kind of estate controversy,
one involving Arizonas
slayer statute and a ruling by the Arizona Court of Appeals in
which Hoopes Adams & Alexander attorneys represented one of the
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 mans
mother-in-law sued his estate for the wrongful death of her daughter
and was awarded $1 million.
Meanwhile, the husbands estate was also sued by
business creditors, who were awarded $965,000. Both judgments were
valid, but the husbands estate could not fully satisfy both of
In an attempt to satisfy her
judgment in full, the wifes mother asked the probate court to
impose a constructive trust against the assets of the husbands
estate. The request was based on Arizonas 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
victims 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 victims death.
Shortly before the murder-suicide described above,
the Arizona legislature amended the slayer statute to allow the
victims estate to petition the court for a constructive trust on
the killers estate, with the intended purpose of securing the
payment of damages and judgments arising from the killers actions
that resulted in his or her criminal conviction.
The wifes 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.
The probate court's ruling was appealed, but the Arizona Court of Appeals
the wifes mother and the husbands creditors on more or less equal
ground in seeking to satisfy their judgments from the assets of the
ruling also shed new light on the interpretation of
an important, though rarely invoked, statute.