Life Insurance And The Right To The Proceeds

A 1955, Beaumont Court of Appeals case discusses a life insurance issue that comes up every once in a while. The case is styled, Pritchett v. Henry.
Here is the relevant information from the case.
Howard Pritchett and his wife, Clyda Pritchett, the appellants, filed their suit against the appellee, Percy B. Henry, and certain life insurance companies; they alleged that they are the parents of Melba Henry, who had been the wife of appellee Percy B. Henry; that on or about January 8, 1955 Percy B. Henry shot and killed his wife, Melba Henry, unlawfully and illegally killing and murdering her. They further alleged that at the time of the alleged willful killing of Melba Henry by her husband, Percy B. Henry, there were in existence several policies of life insurance insuring the life of Melba Henry and the said Percy B. Henry was the beneficiary in said life insurance policies. They further alleged that they were the next of kin of the deceased, Melba Henry, after the appellee Percy B. Henry, and prayed the court to forfeit the interests of the appellee Henry in all policies of life insurance by virtue of Article 21.23 of the Insurance Code of Texas, V.A.T.S. This Article is now found in the Texas Insurance Code, Section 1103.151.
In issuing it’s opinion the court cites and quotes from numerous cases and texts which enunciate this rule. Two of the authorities cited and quoted from are Scott on Trusts, Vol. 3, Sec. 489.4 and Restatement of the Law of Restitution, Sec. 184.
The court also relied on the following from Scott on Trusts, Section 492: ‘Acquisition of Property by Murder.’ In 1897 Professor James Barr Ames submitted to the legal profession a monograph discussing the question, ‘Can a murderer acquire title by his crime and keep it?’ Professor Ames suggested three possible answers to his question: (1) that the murderer takes the property and keeps it; (2) that the murderer does not take the property; (3) that the murder takes the property but holds it upon a constructive trust. He advocated the third view, that legal title passes to the murderer but equity will treat him as a constructive trustee of the title because of the unconscionable mode of its acquisition, and compel him to convey it to the heirs of the deceased, exclusive of the murderer. Scott adopts the view that Professor Ames’ answer is a sound one, as a matter of policy and as a logical application of a well-settled principle. He says that in the absence of a statute otherwise providing, it would seem that the legal title to the property should pass to the murderer and he is chargeable as constructive trustee. This seems to be the case where the Statute of Wills and the Statute of Descent and Distribution is silent on the matter and there is no other statute with respect to it. Where the Statute of Wills and the Statute of Descent and Distribution make no provision as to the effect of murder of the decedent by the legatee or heir, the property passes under the will or by intestacy to him. It is then that the equitable principle as to unjust enrichment becomes applicable. That principle is as applicable where the title to property is acquired by murder as it is where the title is acquired by fraud, duress or undue influence. By imposing a constructive trust upon the murderer, the court is not making an exception to the provisions of the statutes, but is merely compelling a murderer to surrender the profits of his crime and thus preventing his unjust enrichment. In some cases the courts have permitted the murderer to take and keep the property of the decedent because they thought it would be a violation of the provisions of the Statute of Wills or the Statute of Descent and Distribution, to deprive him of the property. These courts, the writer says, have failed to see that in order to deprive a murderer of the property it is not necessary to make an exception to the statute; all that is necessary is to apply the well-settled equitable principle under which a constructive trust is imposed upon one who acquires property through his own wrong.
The text also discusses that same principle as applied to murder by spouse. It is pointed out that at common law the widow of a decedent is entitled to a life interest in one-third of the land owned by her husband at any time during coverture, and that prior to his death she had an inchoate right of dower in the land, of which she cannot be deprived by his will or by a conveyance inter vivos by him without her consent. It is argued that since she has this interest during his lifetime, she should not be deprived of it even though she murders him. It would seem, however, that she should not be permitted to profit by the murder of her husband. If she had predeceased him she would have taken no interest in the land. By her felonious act she had made it certain that she survived him. It would seem, therefore, that she should be precluded from the enjoyment of her dower interest . The same consideration should apply with respect to the husband’s right of curtesy where he murders his wife. By statute it is frequently provided that the surviving spouse shall have a certain share of the property of the deceased spouse if the latter dies intestate. Under such statutes it is clear that there is the same reason for imposing a constructive trust upon one spouse who murders the other as where the heir or next of kin murders him. Soctt on Trusts, Sec. 492.2. The court said the same reasoning applies to the question of whether this principle shall be applied under our statute of community survivorship. The surviving spouse should not be permitted to keep or enjoy the property of the community, since by his willful act he has made certain that he survives his deceased spouse and he should be precluded from keeping and enjoying property which he takes as a survivor in community.

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