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Crime doesn't pay in probate court, either

The movie "Double Indemnity" and its modern remake "Body Heat" may seem a little farfetched to happen in real life. Both stories are about a woman and her lover's plot to kill her husband -- money is the motive -- and both are suspenseful in part because they are plausible.

A notorious murder case out of New York is a particularly gruesome example of real-life "they did it for the money" murders. The story started in Florida, with the murder of a wealthy real estate developer's widow. Her son, a business man, inherited her fortunate; he was found murdered in a New York hotel room a few months later. His wife had masterminded the two murders and is now serving a life sentence.

She did not inherit her husband's estate. Under New York's slayer statute, she could not inherit. The law required that probate proceed as if she had predeceased her husband. She would not benefit from her crime. Her daughter, who had long distanced herself from her mother, inherited the estate.

Michigan, like New York and most other states, has a slayer statute. The law is more detailed than one might expect, covering more than just murder and enumerating specific benefits that are forfeited. When this law was passed, the Michigan Legislature meant business.

In addition to a murder conviction, a conviction for abuse, neglect or financial exploitation bars the offender from inheriting from the victim. The rule holds even if the victim dies intestate, if the offender is entitled to an elective share or an omitted spouse's or child's share … the list comprises just about every possible scenario under which someone could inherit anything from another person, including being appointed as executor or to any fiduciary role. The offender even forfeits the right of survivorship to real estate.

The law may also apply in the absence of a conviction. An interested party may petition the court to consider the matter; if the court finds the accused to be criminally accountable, the slayer rule goes into effect.

Still, Michigan adds an interesting "however." In a case of abuse or exploitation, the rule will not apply if the deceased specifically directs that the offender will inherit regardless of a past conviction for abuse, neglect or exploitation. It is possible, then, for a person to forgive the sin, even if the law has not forgiven the sinner.

Sources:

Michigan Compiled Laws Annotated, § 700.2803, Forfeiture and revocation of benefits, accessed July 23, 2015

2Paragraphs, "Narcy Novack Doesn’t Believe Husband Ben Novack Is Dead," Jan. 31, 2015

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