July 30, 2014 § 6 Comments
Many years ago I represented two young children whose mother had died while on an ill-fated catfishing trip to the flooded Lost Horse Creek in northeast Lauderdale County. She had been invited on the outing by her husband, who only the week before had taken out $400,000 in life insurance policies on her life, with himself as sole beneficiary. The policies had double-indemnity provisions for accidental death.
The husband claimed that the wife had slipped in the rain-soaked mud, fell into the creek and must have hit her head on a tree limb, knocking her unconscious and either killing her by the blow, or she drowned.
The coroner disagreed, finding that she had suffered more than one heavy, crushing blow to the back of the skull with a blunt object — an injury that was inconsistent with the circumstances the husband claimed — and there was no water in her lungs, indicating that she was dead before she fell in the creek.
The husband was indicted for murder, and the proof at trial included that he had offered a local bar owner $5,000 to kill her some ten months before he himself did the deed. The husband was convicted of murder. His appeal was unsuccessful. Hammond v. State, 465 So.2d 1031 (Miss. 1985).
I filed a petition in chancery court to have the husband disqualified from recovering the insurance proceeds, which had been interpled by the insurance companies. He contested the matter, but the chancellor ruled that the proceeds were property of the woman’s estate, the only heirs of whom were the two sons. There was no appeal.
The law of Mississippi is that a life insurance beneficiary who wilfully takes the insured’s life may not recover the insurance benefits. Gholson v. Smith, 210 Miss. 28, 29, 48 So.2d 603, 604 (Miss. 1950). In the case of Dill v. Southern Farm Bureau Life Ins. Co., 797 So.2d 858, 866 (Miss. 2001), the court ruled that the standard of proof is by a preponderance.
The same rule applies in inheritance.
In the recent case of Young v. O’Beirne, adm’r of the Estate of Young, decided by the COA on June 3, 2014, the COA found that Mr. Young, who indisputably had murdered Mrs. Young, could not have any interest in her estate, based on MCA 91-1-25, which provides that “[i]f any person wilfully cause[s] or procure[s] the death of another in any way, he shall not inherit the property, real or personal, of such other; but the same shall descend as if the person so causing or procuring the death had predeceased the person whose death he perpetrated.”
A similar code section is found at MCA 91-5-33, which provides that a person who has wilfully caused or procured the death of another person shall not take any real or personal property of the decedent under any will, testament or codicil, and as to any such devise the testator is deemed to have died intestate.
Note that a plea of guilty to manslaughter, standing alone, is not sufficient to support a finding that would preclude inheritance under either statute. Hood v. VanDevender, 661 So.2d 198 (Miss. 1995). That would not preclude the chancery court, however, from finding that the act rose to the level of wilfullness that would invoke either statute, because the killing need not amount to murder, but the proof only needs to establish that it was wilful and without justification in law. Henry v. Toney, 211 Miss. 93, 50 So.2d 921 (1951).
The courtly Mr. Tom Ethridge, who taught equity and chancery practice at Ole Miss Law School years ago when such things were still worthy subjects of legal academia, used to say, “Equity means do right.” Do right. That is behind these laws. I recently told a young lawyer that if you’re uncertain about what the law might be in a given situation, figure out what the most honest, forthright thing to do might be, and you’ll probably be pretty close to what the law requires. Just do right.