Tuesday, March 12, 2013

In re Estate of Mahoney case brief

In re Estate of Mahoney case brief summary
126 Vt. 31

SYNOPSIS: Appellant wife sought review of the decision from the Probate Court for the District of Franklin (Vermont), which granted the estate of her late husband to appellee parents and determined that she could not inherit from her husband because she had been convicted of manslaughter in his death.

OVERVIEW: The wife was convicted of manslaughter for killing her husband. The husband died intestate and the probate court determined that it would be unjust to allow her to profit from her husbands death and decreed the residue of his estate to his parents rather than to her as required by Vt. Stat. Ann. ch. 14, § 551(2). The wife challenged the decision and the court reversed.

There was no statutory basis for depriving the wife of her rights under Ch. 14, § 551(2) and the probate court lacked the equitable power to stray from the statutory mandate.

The court recognized that the wife should not be permitted to profit from her husband's death if she intentionally killed him and granted the estate administrator 60 days in which to apply to the court of chancery, which had the equitable power to impose a constructive trust on the wife in favor of the parents. Because the manslaughter conviction did not delineate between voluntary or involuntary manslaughter the intentional killing of the husband would have to be proved in the chancery court before a constructive trust could be imposed. If the chancery court's jurisdiction was not invoked within 60 days the wife inherited the property.

OUTCOME: The court reversed the judgment granting the husband's estate to his parents rather than his wife and gave the estate administrator 60 days to apply to the chancery court for the imposition of an equitable trust on the wife.

      In re Estate of Mahoney (Vt. 1966) [17 CB 126]: Wife shot and killed husband and was convicted of manslaughter.  Probate court denied wife a share of the intestate estate even though VT has no slayer statute.  Rule: Manslaughter is an intentional killing, even if done out of sudden passion, so the appropriate course of action would be to prevent the slayer from profiting from his actions.  A constructive trust in favor of the decedent’s other heirs is the appropriate remedy.
i.    Court notes that probate court is court of limited jurisdiction without full equitable powers so case remanded to chancery court for imposition of constructive trust
ii.   Court notes that in absence of statutory guidance, a court can take 3 options:
a.   Distribute to the slayer – Effect the language of the descent statutes
b.   Prohibit the slayer form taking – Right result, but heavy-handed by judiciary
c.   Allow slayer to take, but impose constructive trust in favor of other heirs (note that this isn’t a real trust, but an equitable remedy that vests title in the proper party other than the wrongdoer and then “trust” terminates)
   UPC § 2-803(b) (1997) – Intentionally and feloniously killing the decedent bars the slayer from taking from the decedent in any form, including nonprobate assets
i.    The slayer is treated as having disclaimed any share
ii.   UPC § 2-803(g) (1997) – A conviction is conclusive of the slaying, but if slayer would be found guilty under preponderance of evidence standard, that suffices too (even if the wrongdoer was otherwise acquitted of any crime in court)

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