If you live in South Carolina, it is unavoidable that you have read or heard about the State’s prosecution of former attorney, Alex Murdaugh, for the murder of son and wife, Paul and Maggie Murdaugh. In fact, if you live anywhere in the United States, you have likely heard about this case that has reached national headlines due to the saga’s many twists, turns, and intertwined financial actions. With the recent unanimous jury verdict finding Mr. Murdaugh guilty on all counts, the murder trial has reached a conclusion, but you may be wondering, what happens to the estates of Maggie and Paul? Can a convicted murderer benefit from his crimes if he or she is the heir or beneficiary of the victim’s estate? Luckily, the answer is no, thanks to South Carolina’s aptly nicknamed “slayer statute.”
South Carolina Code §62-2-803 states that anyone who “feloniously and intentionally kills the decedent” is not entitled to any benefits under the decedent’s estate, whether the killer is named in the victim’s Will or would be an heir to the estate if no Will existed. The “slayer” is treated as if he or she predeceased his victim. This law not only applies to a decedent’s probate estate, but would also extend to non-probate interests such as assets held in trust, or assets that would pass by operation of law such as joint bank accounts. The bottom line is that if convicted of murder, the guilty party cannot benefit from his or her crimes.
Turning back to the Murdaugh estates, Mrs. Murdaugh’s estate is currently being probated as a “testate” estate, meaning that she had a valid Will at the time of her death. Like many spouses, Mrs. Murdaugh’s Will names her husband, Alex Murdaugh, as the beneficiary of her entire estate. In the event her husband was to predecease her, Maggie names her children equally as contingent beneficiaries. Because Mr. Murdaugh has been convicted of her murder, for probate purposes, he is treated as if he predeceased Maggie and will not receive anything under her Will. Paul, only being twenty-two at the time of his death, did not have a Will, and his estate is therefore being probated as an “intestate” estate. Under South Carolina law, when a decedent does not have a Will, the State’s intestate succession code would control, setting out who the heirs of the decedent would include. In this situation, Paul was not married and had no children at the time of his death, so the Code dictates that his parents would inherit as his heirs. His mother, however, is also deceased, and his father is again treated as predeceasing Paul due to his conviction. Under South Carolina intestacy laws, Paul’s heir will therefore be determined to be his brother.
The Murdaugh tragedy provides a unique lesson on how our State’s laws apply to protect an innocent victim’s estate from being claimed by the guilty party. There is some solace in the fact that the Slayer Statue prohibits such an inequitable outcome.