In re Estates of Butwin (CA1 4/19/16)

Arizona has codified the doctrine that a murderer cannot inherit from his victim, 14-2803. Here the victims try to use the statute to inherit from the murderer.

Husband killed Wife and Children and then himself. Wrongful-death actions against his estate followed, along with an action by various creditors Husband had embezzled from. After large judgments were entered in all, the wrongful-death claimants (i.e., the victims’ estates) moved for a constructive trust on Husband’s estate under 14-2803K, which provides for a trust on a killer’s “property or estate,” effective at the time of the murder, to secure the payment of damages. The point was of course to give their judgments priority over that of the creditors, effectively barring the creditors’ claim (there wasn’t enough money to go around) and allowing them to take the whole estate via their judgment claims. The probate court denied the motion; they appeal.

The Court of Appeals affirms, on a narrow point of statutory construction. 2803F says that the fact of the required “felonious and intentional killing” can be established by a criminal conviction or the court can find it by a preponderance. But 2803K says that the trust is based on acts that “pursuant to subsection F . . . resulted in a criminal conviction.” We might have called that an ambiguity but the court says that the reference to subsection F is to the “felonious and intentional” requirement and that subsection K says specifically that in order to get a trust you can only prove that with a conviction.

There were also arguments about the statute’s effect on creditors but, having resolved the case, the court declines to reach them.

(opinion: In re Estates of Butwin)