Academic journal article Boston University Law Review

The Slayer Rule

Academic journal article Boston University Law Review

The Slayer Rule

Article excerpt


The slayer rule is the subject of the detailed and thoughtful section 45 of the Restatement (Third) of Restitution and Unjust Enrichment, which states, "A slayer's acquisition, enlargement, or accelerated possession of an interest in property as a result of the victim's death constitutes unjust enrichment that the slayer will not be allowed to retain."1 The slayer rule is no stranger to the Restatement project. It is covered also by section 8 of the Restatement (Third) of Property: Wills and Other Donative Transfers, with some differences.2 This now universal principle has stirred a lively legal discussion. The still vivid discussion currently is focused not on the very recognition of the principle, but rather on its scope, and it revolves around several partially overlapping tensions: law and morality; text and context; rules and standards; public and private; civil and criminal liability; courts and legislators.


The problem is timeless and universal, as exemplified by two biblical stories: the story of David and Bat-Sheba3 and the story of Naboth's vineyard, which gave birth to the expression "to kill and inherit."4 In the first story King David desired Bat-Sheba and brought about the death of her husband Uriah in battle.5 Later David married Bat-Sheba.6 In the second, no less dramatic, story King Ahab desired Naboth's vineyard, but upon Naboth's refusal to sell his patrimony, a false trial (orchestrated by Queen Jezebel) was arranged. Naboth was convicted of heresy and executed, and the vineyard passed to the king as a legal heir.7

From a moral point of view, both kings were grave sinners and should not have reaped the fruits of their crimes. In practice, however, both retained the profits of their crime: David kept Bat-Sheba, Ahab the vineyard.8

Nowadays the slayer rule is regarded as universal and applies in almost every known system of law, but these stories served as precedents for the rejection of its application in Jewish law. Being an heir was conceived as a status which could not be denied.9 Practically, the slayer could not benefit from the inheritance. He might in fact be executed or imprisoned.10 But his status and line of inheritance were not impaired: his children succeeded him.11


The Israeli Law of Succession rejected that approach and adopted an expanded version of the slayer rule.12 But the rule of Jewish law reflected in the biblical stories is a reminder of the ideological debate that predated the adoption of the slayer rule in American law. That debate was dramatically exposed in the famous case of Riggs v. Palmer,13 which ignited the legal imagination and served as probably the most conspicuous example of the dilemma of the limits of law, the tension between law and morality, and the relations between statutory law and case law.14

In Riggs, a grandfather was poisoned to death by his sixteen-year-old grandson, who was nominated as heir in the grandfather's will.15 The murder was designed to prevent the grandfather from changing his will.16 Under the New York probate statute, an heir named in the will was to succeed the testator.17 The claim to disinherit the grandson failed in the first instance, following the strict statutory rule.18 The appellate court was divided and eventually reversed the decision.19 The minority stated that to disinherit would be overstepping the bounds of a proper judicial role and imposing upon the heir a punishment not authorized by law.20 The majority held that allowing the murderer to inherit was inconceivable; all laws as well as all contracts are governed by fundamental maxims of the common law under which "[n]o one shall be permitted to . . . take advantage of his own wrong, or to . . . acquire property by his own crime."21 Rejecting the view that disinheritance was punishment, and supported by a case disqualifying a murderous beneficiary under an insurance contract,22 the majority ruled the grandson was barred from inheriting from his grandfather. …

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