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Estate PlanningLegal Analysis

Lottery Lessons for Murderers

By January 9, 2013No Comments
Lottery Ticket

Photo: U Nielsen, Denmark

Recently, an Illinois man won a million dollars playing the Illinois Lottery. In an unfortunate turn of events, shortly after taking his smiling photo op with check in hand and stating his intentions, he died. Initially, it was thought he died of bad eating habits leading to clogged arteries and a bad heart. However, something seemed a little fishy, so the authorities were called in to request an autopsy and investigate. Ya think?

One need not be a lawyer to know who was first on the list of suspects: immediate family. Not only is this is going to make an interesting whodunit but it also gave yours truly the answer to “what to write about this week?” Answer: Crime doesn’t pay even if the “payor” died without a will.

Let’s look at an example:

Jennifer inherits $1 million from her father and announces to family that she is going to place the money in trust for her children. Her only living relatives are her spouse, Jeremy, and their 2 sons, Bill and Ted. Jennifer then drowns while swimming but before establishing the trust and she didn’t have a will.

Later, authorities arrest a close family member and charge that person with murder. It seems that the family member didn’t agree with Jennifer’s plans. So what will happen to the cool million? It depends.

Usually, in Illinois, if a spouse with a child or dependent dies intestate (with no will or trust in place), then the surviving spouse and the child will share equally in the decedent’s estate…unless one of the heirs caused the decedent’s death.

If the heir intentionally and unjustifiably caused the decedent’s death, then he or she will not “receive any property, benefit, or other interest by reason of the death.” Illinois Probate Act of 1975, 755 ILCS 5/2-6. Instead the benefit will go to the heir next in line. Also, the form of that benefit or interest is irrelevant; it could be retirement proceeds, which are nontestamentary. Furthermore, the denial of the inheritance need not be made in criminal court but can be made by any competent jurisdiction. However, a few hurdles still exist:

  • The criminal proceeding must end with a final judgment of guilty … unless the criminal trial doesn’t occur for more than a year after the death.
  • The 401(k) administrator, for example, could have released the funds to the murdering heir without knowing the heir was the one who really retired the retiree. Accordingly, the plan administrator won’t be held liable. Still, the court would likely make the defendant give the money to the heir next in line … unless, of course, the murder is a successful fugitive and not a defendant.

So what would be the results for our example:

  • If Jeremy murdered Jennifer, then the money would go to Bill and Ted as intended.
  • If Bill was the murderer, then the money would go to Jeremy and Ted to share equally.
  • If Bill and Ted were co-conspirators, then Jeremy gets it all.
  • If Jeremy, Bill and Ted were co-conspirators, that would be a little odd given that Bill and Ted were going to get it all, but hey… In that case, if there were no heirs, then Illinois won the Lottery.

Lesson: If you win the lottery and you have to take a photo and someone asks about your plans, tell them to contact your attorney.

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