“Knives out” and the Slayer Rule in Mississippi Law

Knives Out has been a surprise hit this awards season after raking in the cash during the holiday movie season. It’s one of the best whodunits to hit the big screen in quite some time. It’s full of twists, it’s funny, and it stars Jamie Lee Curtis and Daniel Craig. What more could you ask for? 

What’s that you say? You, like us, think all the best movies have an estate planning plotline? Well, get excited because Knives Out has that too! 

In the movie, the patriarch of a wealthy family, Harlan Thrombey, played by Christopher Plummer, is found dead. It appears that he committed suicide, but a detective played by Daniel Craig (with a ridiculously exaggerated Southern accent) shows up to investigate. It turns out Thrombey had changed his estate plan just prior to his death, and now all of his relatives are potential murder suspects. 

We’re not going to say any more about the film’s plot since we don’t want to spoil it, but we do want to talk a bit about one of the estate planning concepts in the film — the slayer rule. In most states, the slayer rule prevents a murderer from inheriting anything from their victim. 

In the film, the greedy family members want to know who the murderer is so they can cut him or her out of the estate plan and increase their own shares. In the real world, the rule is more about grief than greed. Policymakers have decided that they don’t want to reward murderers or make a gut-wrenching scenario for a family even more difficult to accept. 

What is the slayer rule?

In Mississippi, the slayer rule is found in our state statutes.

§ 91-5-33 applies when the person who died had an estate plan in place. It says:

“If any person shall wilfully cause or procure the death of another in any manner, he shall not take the property, or any part thereof, real or personal, of such other under any will, testament, or codicil. Any devise to such person shall be void and, as to the property so devised, the decedent shall be deemed to have died intestate.”

§ 91-1-25 applies when the person who died dies intestate, which is the legal word for without an estate plan. It says:

“If any person wilfully cause or procure the death of another in any way, he shall not inherit the property, real or personal, of such other; but the same shall descend as if the person so causing or procuring the death had predeceased the person whose death he perpetrated.”

Both statutes prohibit someone who “willfully” causes the death of another from inheriting anything from the victim. Mississippi courts have interpreted willful to mean that the “actor has intentionally done an act of an unreasonable character in disregard of a risk known to him or so obvious that he must be taken to have been aware of it, and so great as to make it highly probable that harm would follow.”

Over the years the courts have interpreted the slayer statutes and the legal definition of willfully in various cases. They have decided that insane persons lack the capacity to willfully cause death, so they are allowed to inherit. They have also allowed drunk drivers to inherit after causing the death of a passenger because drunk driving is defined as negligent under state law. There are few if any other scenarios where someone who has caused the death of another is still allowed to inherit. 

We hope that you are not in a situation where the slayer rule is in play, but if you are, the experienced attorneys at Palmer & Slay are here to help