Murder, Benefits and the Slayer Statute Under ERISA
Attorneys handling estate and probate matters are very familiar with Ala. Code § 43-8-253 which provides: “(c) A named beneficiary of a bond, life insurance policy, or other contractual arrangements who feloniously and intentionally kills the principal obligee or the person upon whose life the policy is issued is not entitled to any benefit under the bond, policy or other contractual arrangements, and it becomes payable as though the killer had predeceased the decedent.”
The question arises however as to whether this “slayer statute” applies to a benefit that is governed by the federal law called ERISA.
For example, if a husband murders his wife, is he entitled to her life insurance benefits? Is his wife's estate? Common sense tells you that if there is bad conduct by a beneficiary, that should preclude receiving the benefit. You can't profit from bad conduct. But since ERISA preempts state law most of the time, and since ERISA does not have a provision that precludes murderers from receiving benefits, is it possible that a murderer is entitled to benefits?
In the case Hartford Life Ins. Co. v. LeCou, CV 19-17-BLG-SPW, at *4 (D. Mont. Apr. 8, 2021) the court ruled “‘Congress could not have intended ERISA to allow one spouse to recover benefits after intentionally killing the other spouse.’ Laborers' Pension Fund v. Miscevic, 880 F.3d 927, 934 (7th Cir. 2018) (citing Conn. Gen. Life Ins. Co. v. Riner, 351 F. Supp. 2d 492, 497 (W.D. Va. 2005). Consistent with those decisions, the Court finds that ERISA does not preempt Montana Code Annotated § 72-2-813 (2).” The Montana statute cited by the court was a slayer statute that precludes a slayer from receiving a benefit because of a murder he perpetrated. Given that is what happened here, the court ruled that life insurance money must be paid over to Karen LeCou’s estate.
This situation can also arise when pension benefits are payable to a beneficiary or an estate after the death of the pensioner.
Whether the matter involves life insurance or pension benefit, is important for the estate practitioner to obtain a copy of the plan document in case the estate is actually the proper recipient of benefits. If the plan document specifically disclaims the slayer statute and provides a means of resolving the matter, the plan document will likely control.
ERISA imposes obligations regarding provisions of the plan document and so the estate lawyer is entitled to receive that on behalf of the personal representative. That can be done simply by noting that the deceased was a participant, that the estate has been probated, and therefore the personal representative of the decedent has the right to make a request for the plan document.
That information should be contained in a letter and directed toward the plan administrator, which could be the employer, the pension plan, a committee, or any number of other entities. The plan administrator, however, can easily be identified by using the form 5500 on the Department of Labor website: https://5500search.dol.gov/.