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When the Knives Come Out…

When the Knives Come Out…

Last week, my colleague Manon asked me if I had seen the movie Knives Out. I had and had loved it. She said: “Wouldn’t it be an interesting subject to blog about? You do estate litigation.” Great idea, Manon!

In Knives Out, wealthy crime novelist Harlan Thrombey invites his family to his mansion for his 85th birthday party. The next morning, his housekeeper finds him dead, with his throat slit. The police are convinced that Harlan’s death is a suicide, but all is not as it seems. A detective investigating the case learns that Harlan’s relationships with his family had become strained and he suspects foul play.

We eventually learn that Harlan’s nurse, Marta, accidentally administered him an overdose of morphine instead of his usual pain medication. Believing he has only minutes to live, Harlan gives Marta instructions on how to create an alibi to avoid suspicion and then he slits his own throat.

Harlan’s family soon learns that he left his entire estate to Marta. They turn against her, except for Harlan’s grandson Ransom, who persuades Marta to confess to him and offers to help her in exchange for a share of the inheritance. And why does she need his help? Because of the Slayer Rule, a legal principle which prohibits a person who murders someone from inheriting from that person. If Marta wants to inherit, the fact that she killed Harlan must never come to light.

So, do we have a Slayer Rule in Quebec? It turns out that we do. Article 620 of the Civil Code of Quebec provides that a person convicted of making an attempt on the life of the deceased is unworthy of inheriting. However, Article 620 requires that the death be intentional. The person has to have murdered the deceased, not accidentally killed him, as Marta appears to have done. Intention is key.

Of course, Article 620 CCQ will apply in cases where the person has actually been convicted of murder or attempted murder of the deceased, and perhaps also where there is no conviction but it can be proven on a balance of probabilities that a murder or attempted murder was committed. But what if the beneficiary just treated the deceased badly during her lifetime but did not try to kill her? Article 621 CCQ provides that a person may be declared unworthy of inheriting if she has subjected the deceased to ill treatment or has otherwise behaved towards her in a seriously reprehensible manner.

Both of these rules seem logical, to say the least. Obviously, a person who murdered or attempted to murder someone should not benefit from the crime. And yet, those provisions do not address all the issues that may arise in the circumstances of a murder.

Years ago, I represented the brother and sister of a woman who had been murdered by her husband. He was convicted, his conviction was upheld by the Court of Appeal and his request for leave to appeal to the Supreme Court was denied. There was no doubt (except perhaps in his own mind) that he had murdered his wife.

This man was the universal heir in his wife’s will and he was also the liquidator of her estate. The will provided that if he predeceased her or was declared unworthy to inherit, my clients, the deceased’s brother and sister, would inherit. The replacement liquidator was the murderer’s brother. My clients wanted to remove their brother-in-law as liquidator, appoint themselves and have him declared unworthy to inherit. He contested the application.

The file was eventually settled but this is what I learned. It was easy enough to remove him as liquidator and to have him declared unworthy, even though he continued to proclaim his innocence. But since he was the deceased’s husband, the family patrimony issue had to be addressed because his wife’s family patrimony assets exceeded his. After his wife’s death but prior to his arrest, he had sold the family home and received his share of the proceeds. He had also sold his wife’s belongings. But she had registered accounts as well. And I learned that although murdering your spouse may mean you are deemed to be unworthy to inherit, and while Article 684 CCQ establishes that someone deemed unworthy is not entitled to claim support from the estate, the murdering spouse may still be entitled to his or her share in the family patrimony!

Article 422 provides that the court may, on an application, make an exception to the rule of equal partition of the family patrimony where it would result in an injustice considering, in particular, the brevity of the marriage, the waste of certain property by one of the spouses, or the bad faith of one of them. Most of the jurisprudence deals with the situation where a spouse has dilapidated the couple’s assets and the judge has discretion in making her decision. However, some decisions have held that the fact that one spouse treated the other with cruelty during the marriage, for example in a situation where there was conjugal violence, does not in and of itself justify unequal partition of the family patrimony.

It seems to me that there should at least be an exception in cases of murder or attempted murder. If a murderer cannot inherit and cannot claim support, why should he be entitled to receive the hard-earned assets of his victim? Why should he get half the value of her car, her pension and her home? Thankfully, this situation will be rare. But that is no reason not to correct a potential injustice.

As for Marta, the would-be murderer of Harlan Thrombey, I won’t give away how things end for her. But see the movie. You will not be disappointed!


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