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Law & Psychiatry: Murder, Inheritance, and Mental Illness
Azgad Gold, M.D., Ph.D.; Paul S. Appelbaum, M.D.
Psychiatric Services 2011; doi:
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Send correspondence to Dr. Appelbaum at New York State Psychiatric Institute, 1051 Riverside Dr., Unit 122, New York, NY 10032 (e-mail: psa21@columbia.edu).

Copyright © 2011 by the American Psychiatric Association.

Abstract

Should a murderer be allowed to inherit the victim's estate? The question dates from biblical times, but most jurisdictions today have statutes in place that bar inheritance by convicted murderers. However, a special problem arises when the killer has a severe mental illness and has been found not guilty by reason of insanity. Should such people, who have not been convicted of a crime, be permitted to collect their inheritance? Jurisdictions vary in their responses, with the rules reflecting a mix of practical and moral considerations influenced by different perspectives about what determines the behavior of persons with mental illness. (Psychiatric Services 62:707–709, 2011)

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Have you killed, and also taken possession?” the biblical prophet Elijah asked Ahab, King of Samaria, who with his wife, Jezebel, was being accused of having done precisely that (1). Embodied in Elijah's question is the moral intuition that wrongdoers should not profit from their actions, a sentiment that most people would probably endorse. A contemporary case in the land of the Bible, though, carries more than historical resonance. Moreover, this recent version of the problem is complicated by the fact that the killer who sought to take possession—in this case of his victim's apartment—is severely mentally ill.

Daniel Dvoikin, a 36-year-old security guard who emigrated to Israel as a teenager, murdered his 89-year-old grandmother, Ginda, with whom he had been engaged in a long-standing dispute over the ownership of the apartment that they shared. Dvoikin's aunt and uncle, who were helping Ginda pack her things and leave the residence, were also shot to death. After the murders, Dvoikin called his lawyer to say, “There's a mess in the apartment” (2). He was subsequently found not guilty by reason of insanity and sent to a psychiatric facility. However, in Ginda Dvoikin's will, she bequeathed her apartment to her two grandchildren, one of them her murderer, and Daniel sought to inherit his share of the property (3). Thus, an Israeli court was faced with a question similar to the one that Elijah posed nearly three millennia ago.

The dilemma posed by a murderer who seeks to inherit his victim's estate has made repeated appearances in American law. Indeed, one of the first cases to address this problem was the New York decision in Riggs v. Palmer in 1889 (4). Francis B. Palmer had left a last will and testament giving most of his property to his grandson, Elmer, with only small legacies for his two daughters. When Elmer, then 16, learned that Palmer was considering changing the will to reduce his share, he poisoned his grandfather to protect his inheritance. Although Elmer was convicted of murder in the second degree and sentenced to prison, the question of whether he could claim his inheritance remained. Because no statute existed that would have invalidated the will under these circumstances, Elmer appeared to retain his status as the legal heir. However, the victim's two daughters sought to invalidate the will, arguing that it was contrary to the policy of the state to allow Elmer to profit from his crime.

Judge Robert Earl wrote the majority opinion for the New York court, which ruled in favor of the daughters. Rejecting a straightforward application of the statute, he turned instead to principles of the common law: “[A]ll laws, as well as all contracts, may be controlled in their operation and effect by general, fundamental maxims of the common law. No one shall be permitted to profit by his own fraud, or to take advantage of his own wrong, or to found any claim upon his own iniquity, or to acquire property by his own crime.” The dissent, however, argued that courts simply did not have the discretion to alter the terms of the will: “[T]he matter does not lie within the domain of conscience. We are bound by the rigid rules of law, which have been established by the legislature … the legislature has by its enactments prescribed exactly when and how wills may be made, altered, and revoked. … I cannot find any support for the argument that the respondent's succession to the property should be avoided because of his criminal act, when the laws are silent. Public policy does not demand it; for the demands of public policy are satisfied by the proper execution of the laws and the punishment of the crime.”

The decision in Riggs has been much discussed by philosophers of law, who see the opinions in the case as reflecting two different perspectives on the relationship between law and morality. Ronald Dworkin, for example, argues that the majority decision views law as consisting of underlying general principles in addition to explicit legal rules and that when the two are in conflict, the principles take precedence (5,6). In contrast, legal positivists such as H. L. A. Hart believed that law embodies only the will of the legitimate lawmaker and that an appeal to general principles such as seen in the majority opinion in Riggs threatens the entire concept of law (7). The conflict between statutory and common law in the case of a killer who seeks to inherit from his victim, however, was resolved during the 20th century in most states in the United States, as well as in many other countries, by legislation recognizing a “slayer rule.” Under these statutes, a person who commits a “felonious and intentional” or “willful and unlawful” killing cannot retain a property interest in his or her victim's estate (812).

A layer of complexity is added to the question of inheritance when the killer has a serious mental illness and is found not guilty of the crime by reason of insanity. In one common formulation, defendants can be found not guilty by reason of insanity only when they lacked sufficient capacity at the time of the crime to appreciate the wrongfulness of their actions or to conform their behavior to the requirements of the law. Slayer statutes generally do not address the application of the law when the killer has been found not guilty by reason of insanity. But the effect of mental illness in civil law is often quite different from what is seen in the criminal courts. Although defendants who are legally “insane” may be excused from punishment for their crimes, they may nonetheless remain civilly liable to their victims. It is therefore not immediately clear whether an heir who killed while legally insane should be exempt from the slayer rule.

Indeed, approaches to this dilemma have varied in different jurisdictions. Some states' courts have held that the application of slayer statutes is restricted only to sane killers, whereas other states do not differentiate between murderers found guilty and those found not guilty by reason of insanity, denying both types of slayer the right to inherit. Another approach involves a case-by-case determination of the applicability of the slayer statute based on whether the killer met the specific intent requirement in the statute—in other words, whether the would-be inheritor acted “intentionally” or “willfully” (13). The contrast between states applying fixed rules and jurisdictions making more individualized determinations is illustrated by a comparison of two cases from opposite coasts.

New York and Pennsylvania apply per se rules: convicted slayers cannot inherit from their victims, but those who are found not guilty by reason of insanity can receive their bequests. George Fitzsimmons, a 31-year-old man from Amherst, New York, killed his parents in 1969 and was found not guilty by reason of insanity (14). A surrogate's court in New York held that Fitzsimmons was the legitimate heir to his parents' $125,000 estate, because the slayer statute in New York excluded only convicted murderers from inheriting their victim's property. After Fitzsimmons was released from Buffalo Psychiatric Center, he moved to Pennsylvania to live with his elderly aunt and uncle. A short time later, Fitzsimmons stabbed them both to death. This time, a jury found him guilty of two counts of murder, and he was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison. Although Fitzsimmons was the sole heir named in his aunt's and uncle's wills, as a convicted murderer he was prohibited under the slayer statute in Pennsylvania from inheriting their estate. In both cases, Fitzsimmons' conviction status—guilty or not guilty by reason of insanity—determined the outcome.

Washington State, however, uses a case-by-case approach. In June 1999, Joshua Hoge, a young man with mental illness, stabbed his mother and his stepbrother to death (15). Hoge had long harbored the delusional belief that his mother was an impostor, and hence at his criminal trial, he was found to be not guilty by reason of insanity. Subsequently, Hoge's mother's estate sued the mental health agency that had been responsible for Hoge's treatment, arguing that its personnel had been negligent in managing his care and hence was liable for his mother's death. After the lawsuit was settled, a petition was filed by the state, based on the slayer statute, to prevent Hoge from receiving the money as his mother's heir. The Washington Supreme Court held that even though Hoge had been found not guilty by reason of insanity for his criminal act and was excused from punishment, his act was nevertheless “willful and unlawful,” and hence the slayer statute precluded him from receiving the funds from his mother's estate.

A mix of considerations has driven the adoption of slayer rules and statutes. On the practical side, the major concern has been to discourage murders for financial gain. Given this rationale, the exemption of persons found not guilty by reason of insanity can be justified on the grounds that their actions were usually motivated by delusional ideation or a failure of impulse control, rather than the prospect of monetary benefit, and hence a slayer rule would not have deterred commission of the crimes (13). On the other hand, there may well be doubt in the minds of legislators and judges as to whether even a grossly psychotic person is entirely unaware of the potential for pecuniary benefit that may result from a murderous act. The “double reality” that often characterizes delusional states—in which delusional ideation is mixed with an appreciation of reality—makes it difficult to say with certainty that such doubts are unwarranted. Where those who frame the law stand on this question may be a barometer of their views on the nature of mental illness in general.

Beyond these practical concerns, moral considerations also play a prominent role in the development and application of slayer rules. Like Elijah confronting Ahab, many people are outraged by the idea that someone can kill and benefit from the deed. Indeed, the inclination to punish rather than reward the violation of moral rules appears to have biological underpinnings and is found not only among humans but in other species, such as chimpanzees (16). That no one should be permitted “to take advantage of his own wrong,” in the words of the Riggs court, seems intuitively correct to many people. From this perspective, whether the killer is subject to criminal punishment for the offense is irrelevant to the conclusion that the perpetrator should be denied the right to inherit from the victim and thereby profit from the crime. This illustrates the limits to the exculpatory impact of mental disorders even for those who are seriously mentally ill, reflecting an ambivalence that often appears in debates about mental health law.

The Israeli court deciding whether Daniel Dvoikin was entitled to his share of his grandmother's apartment had to interpret a slayer statute that failed to address the consequences of a killer's being found not guilty by reason of insanity. In October 2010, the court found that there was no legal barrier preventing the murderous grandson, who technically was never convicted of the crime, from inheriting his share of his grandmother's apartment (3). Given the strong feelings that these cases arouse, the response was entirely predictable. A few weeks after the ruling, legislation was proposed by a member of the Israeli Knesset (parliament) to extend the common-law proscription of killers benefiting from their crimes to persons found not guilty by reason of insanity (17). At this writing, it remains to be seen whether the Knesset will follow Elijah's injunction in its most literal sense or will exempt persons who murder as a consequence of their mental illnesses.

1 Kings 21:19
 
Singer-Heruti  R:  Documents paint picture of killer as persecuted youth .  Israel, Haaretz.com,  May 12, 2008. Available at www.haaretz.com/print-edition/news/documents-paint-picture-of-killer-as-persecuted-youth-1.245668
 
Friedman  NC:  A man who murdered his grandmother and confirmed her death was awarded her estate [in Hebrew] .  Yediot Acharanot,  Jan 28, 2011. Available at www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-4020365,00.html
 
Riggs v Palmer, 115 NY 506 (1889)
 
Dworkin  R:  Taking Rights Seriously .  London,  Duckworth, 1977
 
Dworkin  R:  Law's Empire .  Cambridge, Mass,  Belknap Press, 1986
 
Hart  HLA:  The Concept of Law .  Oxford, United Kingdom,  Clarendon Press, 1961
 
Wade  JW:  Acquisition of property by willfully killing another: a statutory solution.  Harvard Law Review 49:715–755, 1936
 
Triggs  C:  Against policy: homicide and succession to property.  Saskatchewan Law Review 68:117–152, 2005
 
Hampton  JW:  The need for a new slayer statute in North Carolina.  Campbell Law Review 24:295–315, 2001–2002
 
Gregory  SM:  Paved with good “intentions”: the latent ambiguities in New Jersey's slayer statute.  Rutgers Law Review 821:821–848, 2009–2010
 
Blackwell  GC:  Creating a slayer statute Oklahomans can live with.  Oklahoma Law Review 57:143–181, 2004
 
Piel  J;  Leong  GB:  The slayer statute and insanity.  Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law 38:258–262, 2010
 
Ewing  CP:  Insanity: Murder, Madness, and the Law .  New York,  Oxford University Press, 2008
 
In re Estate of Kissinger, 206 P3d 665 (Wash 2009)
 
Ariely  D:  The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home .  New York,  Harper, 2010
 
 Proposed amendment to the inheritance law [in Hebrew] . Available at www.knesset.gov.il/privatelaw/data/18/2978.rtf
 
References Container
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References

1 Kings 21:19
 
Singer-Heruti  R:  Documents paint picture of killer as persecuted youth .  Israel, Haaretz.com,  May 12, 2008. Available at www.haaretz.com/print-edition/news/documents-paint-picture-of-killer-as-persecuted-youth-1.245668
 
Friedman  NC:  A man who murdered his grandmother and confirmed her death was awarded her estate [in Hebrew] .  Yediot Acharanot,  Jan 28, 2011. Available at www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-4020365,00.html
 
Riggs v Palmer, 115 NY 506 (1889)
 
Dworkin  R:  Taking Rights Seriously .  London,  Duckworth, 1977
 
Dworkin  R:  Law's Empire .  Cambridge, Mass,  Belknap Press, 1986
 
Hart  HLA:  The Concept of Law .  Oxford, United Kingdom,  Clarendon Press, 1961
 
Wade  JW:  Acquisition of property by willfully killing another: a statutory solution.  Harvard Law Review 49:715–755, 1936
 
Triggs  C:  Against policy: homicide and succession to property.  Saskatchewan Law Review 68:117–152, 2005
 
Hampton  JW:  The need for a new slayer statute in North Carolina.  Campbell Law Review 24:295–315, 2001–2002
 
Gregory  SM:  Paved with good “intentions”: the latent ambiguities in New Jersey's slayer statute.  Rutgers Law Review 821:821–848, 2009–2010
 
Blackwell  GC:  Creating a slayer statute Oklahomans can live with.  Oklahoma Law Review 57:143–181, 2004
 
Piel  J;  Leong  GB:  The slayer statute and insanity.  Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law 38:258–262, 2010
 
Ewing  CP:  Insanity: Murder, Madness, and the Law .  New York,  Oxford University Press, 2008
 
In re Estate of Kissinger, 206 P3d 665 (Wash 2009)
 
Ariely  D:  The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home .  New York,  Harper, 2010
 
 Proposed amendment to the inheritance law [in Hebrew] . Available at www.knesset.gov.il/privatelaw/data/18/2978.rtf
 
References Container
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