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The Tennessee Slayer Statute: How It Applies to Life Insurance Litigation

Like most states, Tennessee has a slayer statute that prevents a person who intentionally caused the death of a victim from inheriting personal or real property from the victim’s estate. Codified at Tenn. Code Ann. § 31–1–106, the statute also prevents the killer from recovering life insurance proceeds from the victim, even if the killer was a named beneficiary under the policy.  The statute is based on the principle that “a wrongdoer will not be allowed to benefit from his crime.”

Under Tennessee case law, a criminal conviction of first-degree murder will allow a third-party to use the slayer statute in civil court to prevent the killer from receiving property or money from the victim. However, even in the absence of a criminal conviction, a person will not be able to recover from the victim if it is shown by a “preponderance of evidence” that he or she caused the victim’s death.

The preponderance of evidence standard is the evidentiary standard used in civil court, and it is easier to meet than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” evidentiary standard used in criminal court. The differences between the two standards are important. A party challenging the killer’s right to a recovery of life insurance proceeds can successfully invoke the slayer statute in civil court, even if the killer was found not guilty of murder in criminal court.

The slayer statute applies not only to someone who kills, but also, to someone who conspires to kill, or hires someone else to kill. It does not apply to acts of self-defense. For example, if a battered wife kills her husband in self-defense, the slayer statute will not prevent her from recovering proceeds from his life insurance policy.

The slayer statute also does not apply to accidental killings, even if the person who caused the death is at fault. The Supreme Court of Tennessee dealt with this issue in Moore v. State Farm Life Ins. Co (1994).  In that case, the victim was killed after her husband lost control of the vehicle. The husband was intoxicated at the time and pled guilty to vehicular homicide.

The guardian of the victim’s minor children sued the life insurance company and the victim’s husband seeking to recover proceeds from the victim’s life insurance policy which had been paid to the husband as the primary beneficiary under policy. The lower court held that the husband forfeited his right to the insurance proceeds under the slayer statute.  The Court of Appeals later affirmed.

In explaining its decision, the Court of Appeals stated that the slayer statute applies to a situation in which death is caused by a person who is reckless or who “consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk.” As the Court of Appeals saw it, the husband acted recklessly in driving intoxicated.  The statute, therefore, precluded him from recovering proceeds from his late wife’s life insurance policy.

The Supreme Court of Tennessee disagreed with the Court of Appeals’ reasoning. It held that the slayer statute is triggered only when a person intended to cause the death of the victim.  The Supreme Court explained its decision by noting that the purpose of the statute is to remove the temptation to kill for monetary gain. Requiring that the killing be intentional meets the purpose of the statute.

Recently, the Supreme Court of Mississippi held in Estate of Armstrong v. Armstrong (2015) that its slayer statute does not apply when the killer was determined to be insane at the time of the killing. In that case, a young man with a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia killed his 80-year-old mother.  Although the man was indicted for murder, the court determined he was not competent to stand trial and committed him to a state mental hospital. Echoing the logic of the Moore v. State Farm decision, the court observed that the slayer statute requires an intentional or willful killing to preclude a person from inheriting from his or her victim. An insane person, however, lacks the requisite ability to willfully kill another person.

If you have questions about the recovery of proceeds from a life insurance policy, you should always consult with an experienced life insurance litigation law firm.