Qualifications on the Right to Inherit


Intentional killing:
A person’s death is the result of an intentional killing if the party who committed the crime wanted to see the person dead and acted in such a way that achieved this result. States will have different labels for their intentional crimes. Common names are murder and voluntary manslaughter.

Qualifications on the Right to Inherit

There are certain circumstances that can prevent someone from inheriting from another’s estate. Predeceasing the testator and wrongdoing by the person who stands to benefit from the inheritance are the main culprits.

Must be Alive

At the time of the intestate decedent’s death, the prospective beneficiary must be alive or at least in embryo. When the beneficiary is in embryo, as long as the person is subsequently born alive, that person inherits as if he had been born during the intestate’s lifetime. For example:

Carlos and Mary were high school sweethearts and recently got married, after unsuccessful previous marriages with other people. Mary was six months pregnant and they were both looking forward to the birth of their child. Carlos has a daughter, Erica from his first marriage. Mary has a son, Brad, from her first marriage. Carlos drowns in a boating accident three weeks before his son, Thomas, is born. If Carlos and Mary live in a jurisdiction that allows both the surviving spouse and descendants to inherit from the estate, Mary would be entitled to a one-third or one-half share of the estate. Erica and Thomas would be entitled to the balance of the estate. Thomas would be included as a beneficiary because he was conceived before Carlos’s death. As such, he inherits as if he had been born in Carlos’s lifetime.

Survival may be uncertain if the intestate person and the beneficiary die in the same accident. As such, many states have statutes that specify how long one has to outlive the other to still be eligible to inherit from the estate. For example:

Carlos and Mary are married and have no children as a couple. Carlos has a daughter, Erica from his first marriage. Mary has a son, Brad, from her second marriage. Carlos and Mary drown in a boating accident and there is no evidence as to who died first. Under the law in many states, neither is presumed to have died first. As such, Carlos’s estate goes to his daughter, Erica and Mary’s estate goes to her son, Brad.

Intentional Killing of Decedent

Since most states do not permit someone to profit from a crime, most statutes bar a person who intentionally kills the decedent from subsequently inheriting from the estate. This prohibition usually covers those convicted of murder through voluntary manslaughter. See, e.g., In re Estate of Mahoney, 220 A.2d 475 (Vt. 1956). To be excluded from inheriting the assets, the person must be convicted of some type of intentional killing. The actual labels of each state’s intentional killings will differ. As an alternative, a “constructive trust” is imposed on the inheritance and the property passes to the next surviving heir. See, e.g., Dutill v. Dana, 113 A.2d 499 (Me. 1952). For example:

Jane has been married to Jacob for five years; it is a second marriage for both of them. Jane has a 25-year-old adopted child, Carter. Jacob was having an affair with one of his co-workers, Ida. They plotted together to kill Jane to inherit the $500,000 inheritance she recently received. The police easily obtained enough incriminating evidence at the scene of the crime for Jacob and Ida to be convicted of first degree murder. They both were sentenced to life in prison. Under most intestacy statutes, the surviving spouse inherits the estate. However, someone who intentionally kills the decedent is barred from inheriting the estate. Instead, the assets go to the next of kin. In this case, although Jacob is the surviving spouse, he was convicted of murdering Jane. As such, the $500,000 estate will instead go to the next person in line. So, Carter will now inherit the estate, as her descendant. As previously discussed, the fact that he is adopted does not prevent him from inheriting the estate.