What happens when a beneficiary kills the person from whom they would inherit property?

Tennessee has what is sometimes called a “slayer statute” that addresses this issue:

Tenn. Code Annotated §31-1-106 Any person who kills, or conspires with another to kill, or procures to be killed, any other person from whom the first named person would inherit the property, either real or personal, or any part of the property, belonging to the deceased person at the time of the deceased person’s death, or who would take the property, or any part of the property, by will, deed, or otherwise, at the death of the deceased, shall forfeit all right in the property, and the property shall go as it would have gone under § 31-2-104, or by will, deed or other conveyance, as the case may be; provided, that this section shall not apply to any killing done by accident or self-defense.

The reference to § 31-2-104 means that if the victim does not have a will, the property passes to next of kin, other than the slayer.

Note that the statute does not apply if the killing was an accident. In Moore v. State Farm Life Ins. Co., the Tennessee Supreme Court recognized that the statute did not apply in a vehicular homicide case, because even though reckless, the driver did not intend to kill.

One other exception is when a married couple owns property as tenants by the entirety. Normally, when one spouse dies, the other automatically receives all the property. However, in a situation where one spouse intentionally killed the other, our Supreme Court said the killer did not forfeit his interest in the property, but the killing converted the tenancy by the entirety to a tenancy in common. The killer received a one-half interest in the property and the couple’s children received the other half. Hicks v. Boshears, 846 S.W.2d 812.

Also note that the statute applies to things like insurance policies. If a beneficiary of a life insurance policy intentionally kills the insured, the beneficiary would not receive the proceeds of the policy. The policy proceeds would go to alternate or secondary beneficiaries of the policy.

Tennessee’s “slayer statute” is a legislative attempt to prevent a killer from acquiring an interest in his victim’s property. How often a killer contemplates the consequences of his action is debatable, but he will not profit from his action.