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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

If I kill my wife can I collect her life insurance proceeds?

Minnesota’s slayer statute prohibits a murderer from benefiting from his crime. Thus, where a husband murders his wife he cannot collect her life insurance proceeds. The rule, however, is much easier to state than it is to apply.

For example, should the slayer statute be limited to murder in the first degree? Should it extend to manslaughter? What about negligent homicide? Assume a married couple is leaving a cocktail party together. The husband has had two martinis and assures his wife he is fine to drive. Three miles from their home he attempts to make a traffic light as it changes from green to yellow and eventually to red. Half-way through the intersection the passenger side door is slammed by a U.S. Postal Service mail truck. The wife dies. The husband is seriously injured. His blood alcohol content is .14 and he is charged with negligent homicide of his wife. Should the slayer statute prohibit him from collecting the $250,000 life insurance policy on his wife?

Assuming the answer is yes, the next question is how does the slayer statute operate?
Minnesota’s slayer statute is codified in Minn. Stat. § 524.2-803. It parrots the Uniform Probate Code and provides:

A final judgment of conviction of felonious and intentional killing is conclusive for purposes of this section. In the absence of a conviction of felonious and intentional killing the court may determine by a preponderance of evidence whether the killing was felonious and intentional for purposes of this section.

Minn. Stat. § 524,803(f). In practice, most parties wait for the criminal aspect of the case to be decided before addressing the civil side. Thus, the question becomes what is a “final judgment?”

Most people are surprised to learn that the judgment is not final until the appeals process runs its course. In practice, this takes many years. With the availability of federal habeas corpus relief, the potential for delaying the finality of the conviction through eternity is theoretically possible.

Fortunately, Minnesota courts have, to an extent, drawn a line in the sand. In Thompson v. Gray, 533 N.W.2d 57 (Minn. Ct. App. 1995) the Minnesota Court of Appeals held, “a judgment becomes final when the appellate process is terminated or the time to appeal has expired.” Id. at 60. The court’s holding raises more questions than it answers. For example, when has the appellate process terminated? When has the time to appeal expired? For the purpose of the slayer statute, does the appellate process include a habeas corpus petition, which may be brought at any time?

A Minnesota District Court recently addressed these issues in Mutual Service Life Insurance Company v. Estate of Colleen Cram et. al., Court File No. C#-02-9957. In that case, Ronald Cram had been convicted of murdering his wife Colleen Cram. Ronald was the designated beneficiary of Colleen’s life insurance policy. After he was charged and convicted for murder, litigation ensued to probate the Estate and determine the proper beneficiary of the life insurance policy. Cram successfully stayed the probate and life insurance proceeding on the grounds that his appellate process had not terminated and the time to appeal had not expired. Cram appealed his conviction in state court and pursued post-conviction relief. State v. Cram, 718 N.W.2d 898, 901 (Minn. 2006). The district court affirmed his conviction and the Minnesota Supreme Court followed suit.

After the high court ruled, the Estate attempted to finalize the probate. Cram argued his conviction was not final because he intended to, and in fact filed, a federal habeas corpus petition. The district court rejected the notion that a federal habeas corpus petition affected the finality of Cram’s judgment. Relying on Nelson v. Hvass, 280 F.3d 782, 873 (8th Cir. 2002), the court reasoned that for purposes of Minn. Stat. § 524.2-803, a judgment becomes final when the Minnesota Supreme Court either rules on the direct appeal/post-conviction proceedings or the time period for appealing to the Minnesota Supreme Court expires. Thus, the court held that Cram’s conviction became final on August 3, 2006, the day the Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed his conviction.

The district court’s conclusion is correct. A federal habeas corpus petition is not an appeal. It is a separate action in a separate judicial forum. It has little to do with the merits of the case, focusing instead on constitutional criminal procedure. While a federal habeas corpus petition carries the possibility of securing the defendant a new trial, it does not carry the possibility of reversing the state court judgment. Thus, it has little effect on whether the first judgment is final. From a practical standpoint, the district court’s decision was correct as it limits what would otherwise be unlimited litigation.

5 comments:

Looking2evolve said...

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Anonymous said...

I read the Minnesota Supreme Court's decision affirming Ronald Cram's conviction. It is disturbing. The district court was correct in concluding he should not be able to collect the life insurance proceeds of his wife, irrespective of a federal habeas corpus petition. I am not, however, entirely conviced that a federal habeas corpus petition ought to be ignored for purposes of Minn. Stat. sect. 524.2-803.

Mauve said...

This is great info to know.

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