MAY 5, 2003 VOLUME 10, NUMBER 44
The common-law principle that a murderer should not benefit financially from his homicide has been codified in most states. “Slayer statutes,” are laws that prevent one who intentionally kills another from inheriting from the victim’s estate. Do “slayer statutes” permit the victim’s estate to inherit from the murderer’s estate?
This question arose recently in a Mississippi case wherein Byron Keith Miller shot his wife, Martha Jeanette Page Miller, and then shot himself. No order of death was determined. Jeanette Page, the murdered woman’s mother and administratrix of her estate, argued that Martha Miller’s estate should be recognized as an heir to Byron Miller’s estate by virtue of Mississippi’s “slayer statute.”
The Lamar County Chancery Court held against Martha Miller’s estate, finding that six-year old Hunter Keith Miller, Byron Miller’s son from a previous marriage, was the only heir at law. The Mississippi Supreme Court upheld the Chancery Court decision two weeks ago. In the Matter of the Estate of Miller, March 20, 2003.
Mississippi Justice Waller explained for the Court that “slayer statutes” are narrow in purpose and operate only to prevent the slayer from benefiting from the victim’s death. The slayer statute is silent on whether or not the victim’s estate may take from the slayer’s estate. Its slayer statute does not support the claim of Martha Miller’s estate, it only prohibits Byron’s estate from benefiting from Martha’s.
The Court also found that Mississippi’s adoption of the Uniform Simultaneous Death Law barred Martha Miller’s estate from any claim against Byron Miller’s estate since there was “insufficient proof to establish an order of death.” Under the law the burden of proving the death order belongs to the party whose claim depends on survivorship. As there was insufficient evidence to show that Martha in fact died before Byron did, the law eliminated both Byron and Martha as heirs to each other’s estate.
Arizona has a similar “slayer statute” and a version of the Uniform Simultaneous Death Act. In Arizona, clear and convincing evidence is required to show that one dying in a common tragedy “survived” any other decedent by at least five days. In facts like the Miller case an Arizona victim’s estate should find the same result.
Meanwhile, Arizona courts have addressed a similar question. In a 1984 case, the Arizona Court of Appeals held that the murderer’s interest in community property does not automatically transfer to the victim because of the statute.