Castro v. Ballesteros-Suarez (CA1 6/18/09)

There must have been a helluva lot of money at stake.

After her husband was murdered, Suarez (“Wife”) made claims under his two term life insurance policies. The carriers (AmFam and Fidelity) were reluctant, in part because she was a suspect in his murder, so they filed interpleader actions. The carriers paid the money to the clerk and the case became a contest between Wife and  the husband’s sister (“Sister”), as P.R. for their mother (“Mother”), who has been previously been the policies’ beneficiary.

The case went to a bench trial. The trial court found that the AmFam change of beneficiary (from Mother to Wife) was a forgery but that the Fidelity change was valid. Wife and her son pleaded the Fifth; based on the resulting inference and on other evidence, the court found that Wife would be found guilty of her husband’s murder.

The court therefore ruled for Sister since A.R.S. 14-2803 says that you can’t be an heir or beneficiary of someone you murder.

Wife appealed; there really must have been a helluva lot of money at stake.

She argued, first, that the evidence was insufficient to support the conclusion that she murdered her husband. The opinion therefore recites the ample evidence of her guilt.

Wife next argued that the statute requires that she be the “killer” and that her son might have done the actual killing. The court held that it even if she had her son pull the trigger she would be criminally accountable for murder.

Wife argued that she can’t be held responsible for murder because there was (in the view of the police) no probable cause to arrest her. But the statute does not require probable cause; it simply requires that the trier of fact find that she “would be found criminally accountable.”

Wife argued that the premiums were paid with community funds and that the statute can’t eliminate her community-property interest. The statute says that “A wrongful acquisition of property or interest by a killer not covered by this section shall be treated in accordance with the principle that a killer cannot profit from that person’s wrong.” The court held that since the Legislature created community property, the Legislature can limit it, and the statue limits it so that it doesn’t apply to murderers. It also cited a California murder-for-insurance case that resolved the community property issue by holding that term policies should be valued as of the moment before the murder – when they have no cash value.

Finally, Wife argued that the evidence was insufficient to support the finding that the husband’s signature on the AmFam change-of-beneficiary form was a forgery. What she apparently meant – and what most who challenge findings really mean – is that the trial court should have favored her evidence, or looked at it all differently. But what she had to show is that there was no evidence to support the finding, and of course she couldn’t.

So what do Wife and her lawyers end up with after about four years of litigation? A record of pleading the Fifth to murder, pointing the finger at her son, raising fairly laughable  arguments (except the decent community-property argument), and an opinion publicizing it all to the world. There must have been . . . well, you know.

(Brief editorial: The court referred to 14-2803 as the “slayer statute” as, presumably, did the parties. The tendency of lawyers and courts to refer to statutes by name is a relatively recent phenomenon. Legislatures have done so for years but that’s a game for laypeople that we didn’t used to play.  Call your statute “slayer,” or whatever, if you will but don’t make the mistake of thinking that that’s somehow a mark of your sophistication and experience; it is rather the opposite.)