MAY 24, 1999 VOLUME 6, NUMBER 47
Kevin and Gina Spann had been married for eleven years. When they married, Mrs. Spann had a two-year-old son from a prior marriage, Steven Hill; Mr. Spann's will left his estate to Steven, and even referred to him as his own son, though he had not taken any steps to adopt Steven.
The Spanns were residents of Illinois, but because Mr. Spann was a soldier in the U.S. Army they had lived for many years in Germany and had returned to the U.S. to live in Georgia. During their stay in Germany, Mr. Spann had purchased two large life insurance policies. One, for $200,000, named Gina Spann as beneficiary and Steven Hill as the alternate beneficiary. The other, for $100,000, named Gina Spann and then her sister Betty Jo Pierce.
In 1997, Gina Spann persuaded her 18-year-old lover and three of his 16-year-old friends to murder Mr. Spann. She was convicted for her role in the murder, and sentenced to life in prison without parole plus an additional five years.
As it turns out, Mr. Spann had a child from an earlier relationship. He had never acknowledged Chrystal Athmer as his daughter, but DNA testing after his death confirmed that he was her father.
English-American common law makes it clear that a murderer may not profit from his or her actions. In other words, under both Illinois and Georgia law, Mrs. Spann was precluded from receiving any benefit from the life insurance contracts. Both states' laws work the same way: the life insurance proceeds would be paid as if Mrs. Spann had predeceased her husband.
Some states go even further, and preclude the murderer's family members from any benefit (unless they are also the family of the victim), on the theory that the murderer might derive some indirect benefit from the money, or might even be motivated to commit the murder to help family members. Georgia, for example, precludes both the murderer and his or her family from inheriting under a will, though it does not take the same position with regard to life insurance proceeds.
Chrystal Athmer's mother made the argument that Illinois law should apply, and that it would preclude Mrs. Spann's son or sister from receiving the insurance proceeds. The Seventh Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals agreed that Illinois law controlled, but disagreed about how that law should be interpreted.
The court noted that Illinois law was not clear on the question of disinheriting family members of the murderer. In fact, said the judges, it is fairly easy to imagine a scenario in which it would be necessary to prevent family members from receiving insurance proceeds or an inheritance. Such might be the case if Steven Hill had promised to use the proceeds to provide a legal defense for his mother, or to support her when she was released from prison.
Steven Hill, however, lives with his aunt and has no contact with his mother. There is little prospect of Gina Spann receiving any benefit from the proceeds of the life insurance policies, and so they should be paid to the alternate beneficiaries (Mrs. Spann's son and sister). The court also noted that Mr. Spann's relationship (or lack of relationship) with his daughter is irrelevant to this determination. Prudential Insurance v. Athmer and Hill, May 14, 1999.
Arizona's law is similar to that in Illinois and Georgia. So far, however, the question of disinheriting a murderer's family has not arisen in Arizona courts.