Willful Killing Of The Insured

Life insurance attorneys will someday see a situation where the beneficiary on a life insurance policy is also the person who killed the insured. Can they recover the life insurance benefits? The Texas Supreme Court addressed that situation in a 1949 case styled, Greer et al. v. Franklin Life Insurance Co.
This controversy relates to ordinary death benefits under an insurance policy issued by Franklin Life. The insured, James Greer, met his death from a knife welded by his wife Margaret, who is also the named beneficiary under the policy. The next of kin of James are asserting their rights under the policy, claiming that Margaret forfeited her rights in willfully bringing about the death of James. Today, this is the “Slayer Statute” found in the Texas Insurance Code, Section 1103.151.
Texas courts have recognized the injustice of allowing the beneficiary to recover on a policy when they have murdered the insured.
This court agrees that, “willfully” connotes something more than that the beneficiary shall have intended the death of the insured to result from his or her act. Obviously the factor of illegality must also be present. But the court cannot agree that the word means in substance “maliciously.” Even in the criminal law decisions it is sometimes said to mean merely that the accused was without legal ground to believe the act to be lawful. Among the common law authorities, including the Restatement, the rule is sometimes expressed in terms of the crime of “murder,” and there is some confusion of opinion where the conduct of the beneficiary amounts only to “manslaughter.”
One of the best considered opinions this court has examined on the subject as appertaining to the instant situation is that of the McDavid case, in which upon a careful review of the authorities, it was held that where the beneficiary intends to kill the insured and the killing is illegal, the beneficiary loses his or her rights under the policy, even though the killing was done under the immediate influence of sudden and violent passion from an adequate cause. That decision is a sound expression of the common law. The principle that one shall not profit by his (or her) own wrong has, of course, its limits, as evidenced by the refusal of courts to bar the beneficiary in cases of negligent homicide or “involuntary manslaughter,” but it seems good policy and not illogical to disregard the too often narrow difference between passion and malice; while on the other hand, as pointed out in case law, the rule based on intent and illegality as distinguished from malice will properly operate to permit recovery in certain unusual instances, where, for example, the killing of the assured, though legally a murder, was, from the standpoint of the killer-beneficiary, a mere accident.
The court thought it entirely reasonable to interpret “willfully” in the statute to mean the same as the common law test, and, so doing, concluded that the evidence of the instant case brings the common law conclusively within its terms. While, as would apparently be true in the criminal law, the beneficiary Margaret’s stipulation that she killed the insured with a knife, and her admissions on the stand or otherwise that she did it by chopping his head and stabbing him in the abdomen, may not alone establish her intent to kill as a matter of law, she not only offered no substantial evidence of a lack of deadly intent or of legal justification of her act but expressly admitted it was not done in self-defense or even against resistance on the part of the victim, and that previous to the trial she had pleaded guilty to “murder without malice,” making no suggestion that the circumstances of the plea were such as to give it less than its normal effect. Her statement that she was the object of a vile threat of physical harm from the assured just before she killed him amounts to no more than evidence of adequate provocation to anger, when considered in the light of her further express admission that he gave no indication of being equipped to, or of intending to, carry the threat into execution. Her testimony shows that she was not unversed in the term “murder without malice.” Under our law this type of murder includes as an essential element that the killing be “voluntary,” that is, intentional, in addition to being illegal. In ruling against the named beneficiary, Magaret, the court stated,”Whatever be the rule as to admissibility or effect in a civil suit such as this of a criminal conviction of the crime in issue, we think the wholly unqualified admission of a plea of guilty with the other evidence above mentioned and in the absence of contrary evidence, established intent and illegality as a matter of law.”