Family members who kill, in Hollywood and real life
May 1, 2023 | View PDF
One of my guilty pleasures is watching the latest celebrity “trial of the month” on Court TV, and I definitely tracked the recent Alex Murdaugh murder trial.
If you haven’t been following it, Alex Murdaugh was a powerful lawyer in South Carolina, who is accused of murdering his wife and his 22-year-old son. He claimed he was elsewhere at the time of the murder, but police found a cell phone on one of the victims, with video taken just before the murders, and you can hear Alex’s voice in the background. He was convicted and will spend the rest of his life in prison.
But being an estate planning attorney, my mind could not help but wonder about the inheritance implications of the case. I know nothing about South Carolina’s inheritance laws, but I do know what would happen in Alaska.
Alaska has a statute, AS 13.12.803, which is designed to prevent anyone from inheriting from someone they kill. If there was a “felonious killing,” the killer is not allowed to inherit from the victim in any way, including through probate, a living trust, beneficiary designations or just about any other method. The legislature spent two and a half pages of text trying to cover every possible way someone could conceivably inherit, and making sure they couldn’t if there was a felonious killing.
What is a felonious killing? Anything that falls within certain criminal statutes, including not only murder and manslaughter, but also criminally negligent homicide. If there is a criminal conviction, that resolves the issue of whether it was a felonious killing. If there was no criminal conviction, there is a procedure in the statute for an aggrieved party to ask the courts to determine that there was a felonious killing, even if the authorities never brought criminal charges.
So what happens, under the Alaska statute, if you feloniously kill someone and there is an inheritance you otherwise would have received from them? The inheritance passes as if you had died before the decedent. If you murder your rich uncle, who left you $1 million in his will, that money goes to whoever would have received that money, under the terms of the will, if you had died before your uncle. If the will said “I leave $1 million to my beloved nephew Buford if he survives me, but if he doesn’t survive me to his then-surviving issue”, then the money would go to your children instead.
But Mr. Murdaugh, who had money, murdered his son, who didn’t have money. But while his son didn’t have much money in life, his son’s estate will have money. That’s because his son’s estate will have a claim against Mr. Murdaugh for wrongful death. Apparently his son left no wife or children behind, so whoever the next living kin of the Murdaugh clan might be could open a probate estate and sue Alex for pretty much everything he is worth. Although they might have to get in line; Alex Murdaugh was facing indictment for embezzling millions of dollars from clients of his law firm, and those people will also have causes of action.
Looking at the statute makes me think of another case, albeit a fictional one. There is a movie called “Fargo,” which is set in Minnesota. Yes, I know Fargo isn’t in Minnesota, I haven’t figured that one out either. Also I don’t recommend watching the movie if you are sensitive to violence or profanity, as it has plenty of both. But it also has an interesting plot.
Jerry Lundegaard is a sleazy automobile dealer who has gotten himself into financial trouble. His father-in-law is wealthy, but will not give any money to Jerry. So Jerry concocts a scheme in which he pays a couple of thugs to kidnap his own wife, hold her for ransom, and insist that Jerry himself must bring the ransom money. Jerry intends to get the money from his father-in-law, who would do anything for his only daughter. His plan is to pay a little bit of that ransom money to the thugs, and then keep most of it for himself. Things go wrong as the father-in-law insists on taking the ransom himself, ends up getting shot to death by one of the thugs, and then ultimately the thugs kill Jerry’s wife. A local police chief puts things together, and Jerry ends up going to prison.
One assumes that Jerry would not have a whole lot of money, since it is clear that his business was not doing well and he was in financial trouble. But his father-in-law had money, and only one child, Jerry’s wife, who had only one child herself, a teenage son. This surviving teenager would presumably have the right to all of his grandfather’s assets. And if his parents did have any assets, this teenager would have a claim against them, because he could sue his father for having caused the death of his mother. Although I note that several other people got killed in the course of this movie, and most of those murders could be traced to Jerry’s kidnapping scheme, so again I expect this young man will have to split any of his parents’ money several ways.
But he would not have to share his grandfather’s money. That was, presumably, going to Jerry’s wife, but since she had already died it would pass through to the grandson. Claimants against Jerry’s estate wouldn’t have any right to that, since the grandfather was an innocent party.
So do you think maybe I should just try to enjoy the next movie, instead of thinking through the inheritance implications?
Kenneth Kirk is an Anchorage estate planning lawyer. Nothing in this article should be taken as legal advice for a specific situation; for specific advice you should consult a professional who can take all the facts into account. And if you’re thinking of murdering someone for the inheritance, maybe a different kind of professional, like a psychologist. Or a pastor, maybe. Oh heck, just don’t do it, okay?