Even decades later, the tragic murder of Natalie Wood remains just as sad, shocking, and full of unanswered questions as when it first came to light. Still today, new twists are added to the story as Natalie Wood’s one-time husband, Robert Wagner, is once again suspected for involvement in her death. While California law prohibits being sentenced with most forms of criminal punishment at his age, California is also one of 36 states with a law known as the Slayer Statute, which could impact his ability to profit from Wood’s death. Michigan has a similar law.
How Michigan’s Slayer Statute works
Michigan also has passed a Slayer Statute into law, which provides that one who intentionally kills another or who is convicted of committing abuse, neglect, or exploitation of the deceased during life forfeits all benefits that person would have been entitled to under a will, trust, or state law, as if that person had predeceased the victim. In other words, not even the children of the killer or slayer can receive any benefits under the will, because those shares would pass as if the killer had died before the victim – preventing any claim he or she might have in the victim’s assets.
This rule extends to appointments and positions of authority under a will, trust, power of attorney, or other authority-delegating document: the killer will be skipped over as if he or she was not designated at all.
In Robert Wagner’s case, Natalie Wood’s will named him Personal Representative of the Estate and Trustee of various funds she left for her daughters. She also left him half of the value of her estate, as her heir. Under the Michigan Slayer Statute, Robert Wagner would be ineligible for all of it: the appointments, the money, and everything else. The Slayer Statute trumps the will, the trust, powers of attorney, and any other estate planning documents, because Michigan lawmakers want to ensure that a killer cannot profit from his or her wrongdoing.
The Nuances of the Slayer Statute
The statute is careful to emphasize that this rule applies to convicted killers. If there is no conviction, the suspected killer can still inherit from the victim. And if there is no trial, the other interested parties of an estate will have to petition the court to determine that the individual would have been convicted if the case had been tried.
Practical challenges of the Slayer Statute
Natalie Wood’s murder was over thirty years ago and her estate was closed decades ago. By this point, the other heirs have already received their shares of the estate, and therefore little reason for them to undergo the expense of trying to claw back money Robert Wagner may have wrongfully received. In addition to that, time passes and memories fade, making it harder to prove without a conviction that he would have been convicted for the murder if tried. And all of this assumes that Robert Wagner becomes more than a “person of interest” in the case.
How often does this statute really come into play, you ask?
A lot more than you might think. Think Nicole Brown Simpson, Casey Kasem, and B.B. King. And it’s not just celebrities with multimillion dollar estates that get caught up by this statute. Locally, Mark Unger, Bob Bashara, and Timothy Beetschen were all caught up in battles over whether they could inherit from the estates of their wives/mothers, whom they were convicted of murdering.
The Slayer Statute cases play out in probate courts, which means that they require a strong team of probate litigators. Each state has different rules and thresholds that need to be met. Because of this, it is important to contact an experienced probate litigator immediately if you find yourself fighting someone in probate court.
Contact us for a free consultation to see how we can help you today: 248.399.3300 or Info@TheProbatePro.com
Written by our attorney – Zachary Trosch!