Last year, a son was accused of murdering his parents in Connecticut after they threatened to take him out of their will. There have been a handful of cases over the past century in Canada with similar tragic circumstances. The long established rule in Canada (known as the “slayer rule” in the United States) is that a beneficiary cannot receive a gift from a will if the beneficiary murdered the testator.
In the case, 27-year-old Kyle Navin, and his 31-year-old girlfriend Jennifer Valiante, were charged with murder of Kyle’s parents Jeanette and Jeffrey Navin. The couple had a falling out with their son after suspecting him of abusing drugs. Jeanette told a friend of their plans to cut off Kyle and take him out of their will. Weeks later, the Navins disappeared. Their remains were found nearly 3 months later in an abandoned house in Weston, Connecticut.
Court documents revealed the family’s tumultuous history. Police found evidence that Kyle had an extensive heroin habit. The investigation also turned up a history of Jeffrey’s emotional and physical abuse of Kyle. Reports indicated that Kyle and Jennifer had purchased “bleach, drain opener, stain removers, trash bags, dryer sheets and bug spray” and texted each other with messages including “Wipe out the infection and get $ for life.” Blood in Kyle’s car and basement also matched his parents DNA. Jennifer and Kyle have pleaded not guilty to the charges. Both cases are ongoing.
The rule in Canada that a murderer cannot benefit from his act dates back at least to the Supreme Court of Canada decision of Lundy v. Lundy in 1895, although the rule is older. That decision established that the disentitlement applies to those who commit manslaughter. A conviction is not required for the rule to apply, nor is it conclusive. Interestingly, and in spite of the far higher burden of proof required in criminal cases, a plea of guilty makes out only a presumptive case for voiding the gift, as it is “capable of explanation” (a convicted party can try to argue that he or she was not criminally responsible for the testator’s death).
This principle of law – a person should not benefit from their criminal act – can also be grounds for a constructive trust. For example, in one case a defendant murdered his wife in 1985. He plead guilty to manslaughter. One of his wife’s sons brought an action on behalf of the estate to recover various properties that were held jointly and in the sole name of the defendant. The plaintiff argued that the husband should not benefit from the murder of his wife. The court agreed that the right of survivorship should not apply with respect to the jointly held items, and applied a constructive trust.