The new version of Tennessee’s Slayer Statute is much like the old version, only with 10 times more verbiage.

Tennessee’s Slayer Statute is based on a simple principle: a killer cannot profit from the killer’s wrong. Thus, a killer forfeits the right to receive property from his victim by way of inheritance or otherwise. 

The current version of the Slayer Statute expresses this idea relatively succinctly. In one paragraph and 122 words, it states:

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 in self-defense.

The new statute consists of nine paragraphs and roughly 1,100 words. The basic idea is the same:

An individual who feloniously and intentionally kills the decedent forfeits all benefits with respect 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 predeceased the decedent.

However, the new statute elaborates on several points. First, a criminal conviction is “conclusive evidence that the individual is the decedent’s killer….” The statute is silent as to the applicable evidentiary standard when the killer has not been criminally convicted for the killing. Case law dealing with prior versions of the Slayer Statute indicates a preponderance of the evidence is sufficient.

Second, the killer forfeits more than just the right to take under the decedent’s will or by intestacy. The killer also loses:

  • Any statutory allowances he would otherwise have been entitled to as a surviving spouse, including elective share, year’s support, exempt property, and homestead;
  • The right to take under the decedent’s revocable trust or pursuant to a beneficiary designation (unless, presumably, federal law provides otherwise);
  • Any rights the killer might have under a power of appointment;
  • The ability to serve as a trustee of a revocable (but apparently not irrevocable) trust or as an executor; and
  • The right to take as surviving tenant under a joint tenancy with right of survivorship or tenancy by the entirety arrangement.

Regarding the last point, the killing severs the tenancy, making the killer an equal tenant in common with the victim.

Third, the new statute details the legal effect of the forfeiture. In the case of property passing by intestacy, the killer is treated as having predeceased his victim. The same treatment applies with respect to a killer who is nominated to serve in a fiduciary capacity. For property passing by will, revocable trust, or beneficiary designation, the killer is deemed to have executed a disclaimer (again causing him to be treated as having predeceased the victim).

Finally, the new statute protects parties who, without knowledge of the forfeiture, engage in transactions with the killer. This includes buyers in good faith of forfeited property and third party payors (e.g., insurance companies).

At first glance, it might appear that the new statute softens the forfeiture rule. After all, it only refers to felonious and intentional killing, whereas the current statute adds conspiring to kill and procuring to kill. However, “feloniously and intentionally kills” is a defined term in the new statute, and the definition makes clear that conspiracy and procuring are included.

Interestingly, the new statute omits any reference to accidental killing or killing in self-defense. Under the current statute, these types of killings are not covered. That is, they do not cause the killer to forfeit an inheritance from the victim. Under the new statute, forfeiture would appear to be a possibility, at least to the extent that an accidental killing or killing in self-defense could be properly characterized as felonious and intentional.

Source: SB 0769 (pdf)

Posted by Joel D. Roettger, JD, LLM, EPLS