The common law has a principal that one should not profit from his or her wrongful act. Thus, under the common law one cannot inherit property from someone he or she murdered. This is called the “slayer rule.” Several states have codified this rule. An actual conviction is not required. Hill v. Lewis, 21 Md. App. 121, 318 A.2d 850 (1974); Chase v. Jennifer, 219 Md. 564, 150 A.2d 251 (1959).
Similarly, the Uniform Probate Code § 2-803(b) states:
“An individual who feloniously and intentionally kills the decedent forfeits all benefits under this Article with respective to the decedent’s estate, including an intestate share, an elective share, an omitted spouse’s or child’s share, a homestead allowance, exempt property, and a family allowance. If the decedent died intestate, the decedent’s intestate estate passes as if the killer disclaimed his [or her] intestate share.”
In those states without a statutory scheme, common law principals may apply.
In Re: Estate of Mahoney, 126 Vt. 31, 220 A.2d 475 (1966), the Supreme Court of Vermont examined a case where the widow was convicted of manslaughter in the death of her husband. In that state, there was no statutory slayer rule. The court summarized three separate lines of decisions that other jurisdictions without a statutory rule had applied. See id. at 477.The first line of cases holds that legal title passes to the slayer and may be retained by the slayer. These cases hold that the denial of the inheritance to the slayer because of the crime would be imposing an additional punishment on the slayer not provided by statute and would violate Vermont’s constitutional prohibition against corruption of blood. The second line of cases holds that legal title will not pass because of the general equitable principle that no one should be permitted to profit from his or her own wrong. This approach has been criticized as an unwarranted judicial rewriting of the laws of descent. The third line of cases holds that legal title passes to the slayer, but equity holds the slayer as a constructive trustee for the heirs or next of kin of the decedent. The court quotes from Justice Cardozo’s “The Nature of the Judicial Process” lectures to explain this doctrine: “Consistency was preserved, logic received its tribute, by holding that legal title passed, but it was subject to a constructive trust. A constructive trust is nothing but ‘the formula through which the conscience of equity finds expression.” Id. Vermont adopts this final approach.
This approach, however, presents a procedural difficulty. The suit in Vermont was brought in the probate court, a court of limited jurisdiction as it is in Maryland. The probate court did not have jurisdiction to impose a constructive trust. Such a trust is an equitable remedy only available to the general equity courts.
Maryland likewise has no statutory slayer rule. In Ford v. Ford, 307 Md. 105, 512 A.2d 389 (1986), the Court of Appeals examined the slayer rule in a case where a daughter killed her mother. The court, in the criminal trial, held that the daughter could inherit because she was found to be not criminally culpable due to her mental condition. This finding corresponds with other decisions that have supported a two-pronged approach to trial: a trial phase to determine whether the offense was committed and a second phase on the issue of culpability. See Treece v. State, 313 Md. 665, 547 A.2d 1054 (1988) (asserting that a defendant’s guilt or innocence is a determination which is separate from that of criminal responsibility). The slayer rule does not apply in Ford because the root of the divestment of the property right hinges not on the act itself but on the mens rea of the slayer. In a case where the slayer is not criminally culpable because of insanity, the reason for the rule does not exist and it will not be applied:
“Equally a matter of equity, justice and morality and a reflection of public policy is the present enlightened definition of criminal insanity under which punishment for the commission of a crime is prohibited. The terms of that definition simply make the maxims prompting the rule – no one shall be permitted to profit by his own fraud, to take advantage of his own iniquity, or to acquire property by his own crime – inappropriate when a person is criminally insane. A person who suffers a mental disorder or is mentally retarded and falls under the cognitive and volitive components of the criminal responsibility statute does not, by the very terms of those components, act with an unfettered will. His conduct is controlled and his will is dominated by his mental impairment. Fundamentally, a killing is “felonious” when the homicide is a felony. In the frame of reference of the slayer’s rule, however, the legislative policy regarding criminal responsibility leads to a qualification of this meaning. We believe that a homicide to be “felonious” in the context of the slayer’s rule, it must be a felony for which the killer is criminally responsible under Maryland’s criminal insanity test. Therefore, if a killer is “insane” at the time he killed, the killing is not felonious in the contemplation of the slayer’s rule. If the killing is not felonious, even though it may be intentional, the rule does not apply. Our view does not do violence to the broad public policies inherent in both the rule and the criminal insanity statutes. On the contrary, it furthers the principles of equity, justice and morality recognized by both the rule and the statute.”
Ford, 307 Md. 105 at 123. If the slayer rule applies, the next issue is what happens to the property. Under the Uniform Probate Code, the property is distributed as if the slayer predeceased the decedent. Unif. Probate Code § 2-803(b). However, in some jurisdictions, including Maryland, no one may claim the property through the slayer. In Cook v. Grierson, 380 Md. 502, 845 A.2d 1231 (2003), the Court refused to permit the slayer’s children to inherit from their grandfather (the son murdered his father) by intestacy because they were not “issue” within the meaning of the statute because their father (the slayer) was still living. The Court held that any change to this result would require a legislative cure.