Wills, Trusts & Estates Prof Blog

Editor: Gerry W. Beyer
Texas Tech Univ. School of Law

Thursday, September 22, 2022

Article: The Slayer Rule: An Empirical Examination

Frederick E. Vars (Ira Drayton Pruitt, Sr. Professor at Law at the University of Alabama School of Law) recently published an article entitled, The Slayer Rule: An Empirical Examination, The American College of Trust and Estate Counsel Law Journal (Forthcoming 2023). Provided below is the abstract to the article:

Elmer Palmer murdered his grandfather. The undisputed motive was money. The grandfather’s will included a large gift to Elmer, which the grandfather was poised to eliminate. Elmer acted first. Under the law at the time, Elmer would inherit despite having intentionally killed his grandfather: the existing will controlled. Unfortunately for Elmer, the New York Court of Appeals announced a new equitable principle: Murderers cannot inherit from their victims. Since this famous decision in 1889, some version of the “slayer rule” has been adopted by nearly every state and lauded by nearly every commentator. Still, important questions about the proper scope of the slayer rule remain unanswered. Case law and scholarship identify multiple rationales for the slayer rule, which push in different directions in difficult applications.

This study is the first to empirically test key assumptions underlying the slayer rule. Over a thousand survey respondents answered the question “What’s fair?” or “What would the decedent want?” in twelve different scenarios. Some of the most significant conclusions are that the slayer rule should not apply to assisted suicide, killings in self-defense, or killings due to mental illness. On the other hand, the slayer rule should be expanded beyond murder in some circumstances, such as elder abuse and neglect. And the slayer rule should be converted from a mandatory rule into a default rule, which testators could opt out of in their wills. Carefully probing what people think about the slayer rule illuminates its many aspects and points toward needed reforms.


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