Most of us don’t make an estate plan on the assumption we’ll die as the result of murder or other criminal behavior. But when such unexpected events do occur, an estate plan becomes even more valuable in assuring your interests are represented. Untimely death often means litigation where your estate becomes the central player.
No matter what your will or trust may provide, a person cannot inherit anything from your estate if he or she is responsible for killing you. Under California law, a person who “feloniously and intentionally” kills another is legally presumed to have predceased the victim, thereby eliminating any bequest under a will or trust. This is not limited to persons convicted of murder in a criminal trial; a probate judge may make a separate finding in a civil proceeding by a “preponderance of the evidence.” However, it should go without saying that a criminal conviction automatically negates a person’s right to inherit from the victim. A recent California appeals decision, discussed here for illustrative purposes only, demonstrates how an estate may recover from the person responsible for its creation.
People v. Jessee
In 1998, Sandra Jessee paid her son and a friend $50,000 to murder her husband, Jack Jessee. In 2012, a Santa Ana jury convicted Sandra Jessee of conspiracy to commit murder and special circumstance first-degree murder. She is currently serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
Following her conviction, prosecutors asked the trial judge to order Jessee to pay restitution to her late husband’s estate and other affected parties. The court agreed and ordered Jessee to pay the Estate of Jack Jessee the following amounts: $311,858, representing the proceeds of a life insurance policy Sandra Jessee collected on the life of her late husband; $131,291, representing one-half of Jack Jesse’s retirement benefits paid to his widow; and $45,335, representing one-half of the proceeds from the sale of the couple’s jointly owned home.
On appeal, Sandra Jessee argued these restitution orders were improper as the Estate of Jack Jessee was not a “direct victim” of her crimes. In July 2012, the California Supreme Court held in another case that “for purposes of restitution, the estate itself was not a ‘direct victim’ of the crime that caused the decedent’s death.” That case involved a man convicted of a drunk-driving homicide. The trial court ordered restitution paid to the victim’s estate, as he had no family or other identifiable heirs. The Supreme Court reversed the restitution award, finding that after a person has died “he or she does not incur, or continue to incur, personal economic loss subject to mandatory restitution” under California law.
In Sandra Jeessee’s case, however, the Court of Appeals said the estate merely “stepped into the shoes to collect restitution owed” Jack Jessee that he could not personally collect owing to the fact his wife murdered him. Since the object of Sandra Jessee’s conspiracy was to obtain possession of the life insurance proceeds and other assets rightfully belonging to her husband, his estate could legally recover said assets as restitution.
Always Have a Plan (and a Backup Plan)
Obviously, your estate plan can’t account for the possibility of spousal homicide. But this case still emphasizes the importance of having an estate plan. In any circumstance where your death is the result of another person’s misconduct, you’ll want a personal representative you trust to be in charge of managing your estate’s affairs-and if the need arises, one or more alternate personal representatives. Contact the Law Office of Scott C. Soady in San Diego if you have any questions.