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Inheritance, the ‘Slayer Rule’ and Reaping the Proceeds of Death

The Latin legal doctrine ‘ex turpi causa non oritur actio’ declares that a person cannot pursue or benefit from a legal remedy, where that remedy arises because of the same person’s own illegal or dishonorable act. This judicial maxim is traditionally applied in the law of torts and contracts, but it also extends to the world of estates. Specifically, the doctrine applies to persons looking to inherit from a deceased’s estate or benefit from a deceased person’s death.

In Canada, and in most common law jurisdictions around the world, when a person commits a crime that results in another person’s death, the wrongdoer is precluded from receiving any inheritance from the deceased’s estate (or receiving any benefit resulting from death such as insurance proceeds) which they may have otherwise been entitled to receive.

This is commonly known as the “Forfeiture Rule”, or the more fearsome-sounding “Slayer Rule”.

The law in Canada is very clear that a person who wrongfully kills another will not be allowed to profit as a result of the deceased person’s death (see the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in Oldfield v. Transamerica Life Insurance Co. of Canada[1]; or the Ontario Court of Appeal’s ruling in Demeter v. Dominion Life Assurance Co.[2]). This is widely accepted as a rule of public policy.

However, it is less clear whether the Forfeiture/Slayer Rule applies to scenarios where the deceased’s death was caused unintentionally, or with a lesser degree of fault (ie. by vehicular manslaughter, negligence causing death, etc.). Or further, whether this public policy rule will extend to instances of indirect inheritance, where the benefit to the killer arises indirectly from their victim’s death.

Non-Criminal Killings

Dhingra v Dhingra Estate[3]

The Ontario Court of Appeal tackled one of these more controversial scenarios in the case of Dhingra v Dhingra Estate.  Mr. Dhingra had taken out a group life insurance policy in which his wife, Ms. Dhingra, was named as a ‘Spouse Insured’ or co-insured. The policy was issued in 1998.

In June of 2006 Mr. Dhingra killed his wife by striking her several times over the head with a marble statue and then stabbing her repeatedly while she was sleeping. At the criminal trial, Mr. Dhingra was found not criminally responsible for Ms. Dhingra’s death on account of a mental disorder.

Mr. Dhingra then applied to have the insurance proceeds paid out to him, but his son Paul, the respondent in these proceedings and executor of Ms. Dhingra’s estate, objected and asked for the insurance monies to be paid to the estate instead, relying on the Slayer Rule. The lower court agreed with Paul and held that Mr. Dhingra was not entitled to the insurance proceeds because it would be unjust to allow him to profit from the killing of his wife.

Mr. Dhingra appealed and succeeded on appeal. Justice Rosenberg, writing for the ONCA, ruled that Mr. Dhingra should be entitled to the insurance proceeds (which flowed from the death of Ms. Dhingra) because he was not criminally responsible or morally responsible for the death of his wife, pursuant to the finding at trial that he was NCR because of mental disorder.  The Court reversed the application judge’s ruling and declared that the Slayer Rule should extend to circumstances where the offender was not criminally responsible for the deceased’s death.

Shaw v Gillan[4]

A similar legal outcome is found in the ONSC’s decision in Shaw. In this case the plaintiff was involved in a motor vehicle accident which resulted in the death of the defendant’s daughter who was a passenger in the plaintiff’s car. The plaintiff was charged with operating a motor vehicle without due care, to which he pleaded guilty and was fined $350.

The life of the deceased was insured in the amount of $150,000 and the plaintiff was the primary beneficiary under the life insurance policy. The insurer did not immediately pay out the insurance proceeds to the plaintiff, due to the circumstances of the deceased’s death, and the plaintiff brought an action seeking payment of the insurance monies. The defendant also sought payment of the insurance monies, arguing that the plaintiff could not benefit from the deceased’s death, which the plaintiff had wrongfully caused.

The plaintiff acknowledged the widely accepted Slayer Rule, but argued that the rule should not extend to this case, because the death of the deceased was not caused by a criminal or deliberate act, but rather by his “inadvertent negligence”. The defendant argued that the plaintiff should not benefit from the deceased’s death and that the public policy rule should apply to this circumstance.

The Court in Shaw sided with the plaintiff, concluding that the Slayer Rule could not be enforced where the alleged wrongdoing was less than criminal. The Court’s apprehension here was that applying the Slayer Rule to instances of death caused by mere negligence or mistake could result in estate beneficiaries being unfairly denied of their inheritance rights because of acts which they did not intend to commit.

The Court ruled that the plaintiff should receive the insurance monies because he did not cause the deceased’s death by committing a criminal or deliberate act, and therefore the Slayer Rule did not apply and he was not precluded from benefitting from her death.

Indirect Benefit

In a July 2018 article[5] in the STEP Journal, Mr. Darryl Browne addresses the interesting question of how common law courts might treat cases where a murderer seeks an inheritance indirectly through their criminal behavior. An example of this scenario can be found in the 2017 Australian decision of Public Trustee (WA) v Mack[6].

In Mack, Ms. Mack was killed by one of her sons, Brent, and she died intestate in 2008.  Brent was convicted of murder and sentenced to 20 years in prison. The Western Australia Supreme Court (WASC) applied the Slayer Rule and ordered that Brent was not entitled to inherit at all from his mother’s estate because of the murder. Ms. Mack’s other son, Adrian, therefore inherited Ms. Mack’s entire estate.

Six years later in 2014 Adrian died intestate. Brent and Adrian’s half-brother, Gary, were the only intestate beneficiaries of Adrian’s estate. The Australian Public Trustee, the administrator of Adrian’s estate, applied to the WASC for directions on whether to distribute any of Adrian’s estate to Brent. The Court relied on three American case law authorities which all supported the application of the Slayer Rule in similar circumstances. The WASC held that “the principle that a wrongdoer cannot benefit even indirectly as a consequence of his misdeeds is well established … directions should be made so as to ensure Brent does not benefit by his criminal conduct”. The Court ruled that no part of Adrian’s estate which was derived from their mother’s estate could be distributed to Brent.

While the court in Mack did choose to apply the Slayer rule, this case does raise potential issues where the rule cannot or will not be applied due to the remoteness of the wrongful act to the benefit sought by the wrongdoer.

The law is clear that a prospective beneficiary of a deceased’s estate shall not benefit from the deceased’s death if the death was caused by that beneficiary’s criminal or deliberate act. However, the above case law raises interesting questions about a beneficiary’s rights to inherit in scenarios where they may have caused the death unintentionally, negligently or without criminal fault, or where the potential benefit is only indirectly linked to a murder or not temporally proximate to the wrongful act.

[1] 2002 SCC 22 (Oldfield)

[2] 1982 CarswellOnt 610, CA (Demeter)

[3] 2011 ONSC 3741, rev’d 2012 ONCA 261

[4] 1982 CarswellOnt 560

[5] https://www.step.org/journal/step-journal-july-2018-full-issue/thou-shalt-not-kill-and-inherit

[6] [2017] WASC 325

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