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When Beneficiaries Attack: Illinois' Slayer Statute

When foul play is suspected, loved ones have the state law on their side

A marriage ends in tragedy as one spouse shoots the other. A mentally ill child kills their aging parent. A grandchild, heavily in debt, poisons their grandparent. Such incidents happen, and are often followed by media hoopla and a criminal trial. But after the cameras go away, who gets the proceeds from the deceased’s life insurance and estate? Can a convicted killer receive the payout? And what can the loved ones of the deceased do to ensure justice is served?

The Slayer Statute

The Illinois Probate Act of 1975 has a section that addresses this very thing, and it’s informally known as “the slayer statute.” It says:

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. … The property, benefit or other interest shall pass as if the person causing the death died before the decedent.

Basically the law prevents a murderer from benefitting from any life insurance, real estate property transfer, trust assets or any other positive that could be given to them as a result of being a listed beneficiary. This law generally requires that there be a conviction for murder or manslaughter, or that there is a preponderance of the evidence that a beneficiary was the cause of death.

A companion to the slayer statute was passed in 2004. It states:

Person convicted of or found civilly liable for certain offenses against the elderly or a person with a disability … may not receive any property, benefit, last will and testament, beneficiary of a trust or other interest by reason of the death of the victim of that offense. The property, benefit or other interest shall pass as if the person convicted of a violation … died before the decedent.

So, in addition to killing the person for the benefit of the murderer being stopped, if someone is found guilty of financial exploitation, abuse or neglect, they will not receive any gains at the passing of the person they abused. This statute is less restrictive in that it doesn’t require a conviction and the “abuse” includes abandonment or failing to provide the actions necessary to preserve an elderly person’s life and health. It also includes neglect, which is passively allowing one’s conditions causing physical injury or deterioration of health.

What Are Loved Ones To Do?

In 2008, Jack Jason Cole Jr. beat and stabbed his mother to death. He was found lacking mental capacity and not guilty by reason of insanity. Cole’s sister moved in probate court to apply the slayer statute to her brother. Cole argued that, because he wasn’t convicted of the killing, he still had a right to his inheritance. The judge’s opinion stated, “when the knife came down, [Mr. Cole] intended to kill his mother—he may lack the understanding of the criminality of his acts to justify conviction of a crime, but he nevertheless knew her death would likely result.” Mr. Cole was disinherited. Similar cases occurred two years later in Mississippi and, a year after that, in Alabama.

The common thread—other than wrongdoing—in the probate litigation cases involving the slayer statute are loved ones and family members challenging the execution of the estate. A law firm or reputable and experienced probate attorney for legal advice is a major boon on their side. And for those who may suspect the potential for wrongdoing before it happens, they’d do right to consult an trust estate planning attorney.

For more information on this area of law, see our overviews of estate planning, wills, trustsprobate and estate administration, and estate and trust litigation.

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