Kittie started dating her daughter’s boyfriend Butch when he was 17 years old. They apparently dated for over twenty years, during which time Kittie purchased him a house to “use.” Butch later moved into the house with his girlfriend Peaches. Butch and Peaches had a daughter Maggie. Butch was frequently physically abusive and often threatened both Peaches and Kittie while brandishing his .45 revolver. One night Peaches had enough. She seized Butch’s revolver after he went to bed, shot him in the back and killed him. The grand jury no billed Peaches. Their daughter was Butch’s only heir. Butch died without a will. Do Peaches’ actions affect her ability to inherit from Butch’s estate? Can Peaches become the legal representative of Butch’s estate for herself and their minor daughter Maggie? Can Kittie get her house back?

Yes. Peaches will have difficulty inheriting from Butch’s estate for several reasons. Peaches would first have to prove in court that Butch was her common law husband; otherwise,  she is not an heir. Even if she could prove common law marriage, what about the Slayer Rule?

The Slayer Rule

The only specific Texas statute keeping a murderer from benefitting from his deceased victim is in the insurance code. A beneficiary of a life insurance policy forfeits the beneficiary’s interest in the policy if the beneficiary is a principal or an accomplice in willfully bringing about the death of the insured. But what about estate assets other than insurance? There still is no clear answer by case or statute. Section 21 of the Texas Constitution’s Bill of Rights provides that “no conviction shall work… forfeiture of estate….” So, early cases concluded that a willful murderer who was an heir of his victim, did not forfeit his right but would inherit his part of the property of the deceased. Troubled by that result, it appears, later decisions hold that equity compels a murderer to surrender the profits of his crime and thus prevent his unjust enrichment – by imposing a constructive trust on the murderer’s portion of the inheritance in favor of the heirs other than the murderer. One judge opined, “[c]ertainly the statutes should not be used as a vehicle to acquire property through parenticide.”

Maggie as Heir

Butch died without a will. He had only one child – a minor. Without having to struggle through proving common law marriage, and perhaps having to avoid the Slayer rule, Peaches stands to control the benefits of Butch’s estate by acting as administrator to insure that their minor child Maggie inherits everything from Butch, right? Peaches claimed that, because she was the next of kin of their minor child – the intestate’s sole heir – she had priority to be the estate administrator over anyone else. Most judges would apply the statutory preference to appoint Peaches under these circumstances, assuming the appointment of Peaches “would be in the best interest of the Estate.” However, if any of Butch’s next of kin had objected, they would have been the administrator because a non-marital partner lacks priority over an intestate’s next of kin to be appointed as the administrator of an intestate’s estate. No one objected. Peaches was administrator.

What about Kittie? Can she get her house back?

The Slayer rule utilizes underlying concepts of Texas constructive trust law – a tool in equity to prevent a party from unjustly enriching themselves. Kittie also had extenuating facts of undue duress. Without detailing the circumstances, imposing a constructive trust is a tool developed in equity to assist judges to temporarily secure property that is the source of someone’s unjust enrichment, pending transfer of the property to its rightful owner. Kittie argued that she was the rightful owner. In mediation, the attorneys agreed, and she got her house back.

Balancing the Scales – for all members of the Family

Kittie had become quite attached to Maggie and did not want to alienate her. While she wanted to provide, as she could, for Maggie, Kittie did not have the same commitment to Peaches. Mediation was a good mechanism to resolve the disagreements among those claiming against Butch’s estate.

Tilting the Scales Blog

This is another in a series of Tilting the Scales articles on “real life” business and family issues in the lives of families and friends seeking a fair solution to heated disagreements. Kittie’s issues were litigated and resolved by Cleve Clinton and other Gray Reed lawyers.

No Legal Advice

This blog is informational only. The names have been changed. The facts and legal issues are sometimes changed to make a point. Seek advice worthy of your trust from someone with the necessary education and experience.