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Massachusetts Agencies

Homicide: Effect on Inheritance


If a person murders another the perpetrator cannot inherit from the deceased, either by way of intestate succession, under a will or by reason of a joint tenancy or tenancy by the entirety.[1] See Newhall, Settlement of Estates, The Lawyers Cooperative Publishing Company, (Fourth Edition, 1958), §229. Such a title is not insurable.

In Minasian v. Ætna Life Insurance Co., 295 Mass. 1, 3 N.E.2d 17 (1936) the court acknowledged that murder will result in the offender forfeiting his rights to collect under a policy of life insurance but wrestled with the question as to whether that doctrine would be extended to cases of unlawful homicide falling short of murder. In Minasian, where the defendant was convicted of manslaughter, there was evidence that a revolver was discharged, without any intention on the part of the defendant, during a struggle with his wife for its possession. The court held that a conviction for manslaughter for the death of another, at least where there was no intentional injury of a kind likely to cause death, will not result in the offending party forfeiting such rights in an insurance policy insuring the decedent's life and under which the defendant was the named beneficiary. It would appear from the decision in Minasian that the result would be otherwise where the intentional act of the defendant, such as firing a gun at the victim, even in a moment of passion, would likely have the effect of killing the victim, even though there was no intention to kill. Minasian was an action of contract. Assuming that the rule announced in the case would apply to inheritances and well, a determination would have to be made as to whether there was or was not an intentional injury of a kind likely to cause death. That requires the decision of a jury.

Compare the Minasian decision with the case of Arnold v. Jacobs, 319 Mass. 130, 65 N.E.2d 4 (1946), where an insured was operating a car, had an accident and the passenger, his mother, was killed. The personal representative of the deceased mother sued the son and collected a judgment. The insurance company was required to pay the amount to the personal representative. In connection with the distribution of the proceeds among the beneficiaries of the estate, including the son who had been operating the estate, the court said that the son could not share in the proceeds. "[This] case is not governed by Minasian v. Ætna Life Insurance Co., 295 Mass. 1, 3 N.E.2d 17, where the plaintiff had a property right as beneficiary in a policy of life insurance on the life of his wife, and the question was how far the culpability for her death deprived him of that property right. In the present case, the question is whether [the son] can share as a distributee in the very [insurance proceeds] exacted from him by the law as a punishment for negligently causing his mother's death. We think he cannot share in the distribution . . . . To allow him to share in the [insurance proceeds] would in effect permit him to reduce it, and that we have held cannot be permitted."

1 The perpetrator, however, will not lose any rights that he or she had previously. For example, a joint tenant or a tenant in common will not lose his or her half (or other fractional) interest in the property that was held with the decedent before the decedent's death, nor be prevented from occupying the property. Where a tenancy by the entirety is involved, if one spouse murders the other he or she, too, cannot be prevented from occupying the property, since that right was held by both spouses equally even prior to the criminal act, but the offending party will be deemed to hold the remainder in trust for the benefit of the deceased's estate. See Diamond v. Ganci, 328 Mass. 315, 103 N.E.2d 716. Inasmuch as neither tenant by the entirety has an interest in the property itself during the marriage, but only an interest as to its possession (see the discussion in Coraccio v. Lowell Five Cents Sav. Bank, 415 Mass. 145, 150-152, 612 N.E.2d 650 (1993)), the murder by one spouse of the other tenant by the entirety prohibits the offending party from succeeding to any fee interest in the property. [Back to Text]