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Law School Case Brief

In re Estate of Mahoney - 126 Vt. 31, 220 A.2d 475 (1966)

Rule:

The principle that one should not profit by his own wrong must not be extended to every case where a killer acquires property from his victim as a result of the killing. One who has killed while insane is not chargeable as a constructive trustee, or if the slayer had a vested interest in the property, it is property to which he would have been entitled if no slaying had occurred. The principle to be applied is that the slayer should not be permitted to improve his position by the killing, but should not be compelled to surrender property to which he would have been entitled if there had been no killing. The doctrine of constructive trust is involved to prevent the slayer from profiting from his crime, but not as an added criminal penalty.

Facts:

The wife, Charlotte Mahoney, was convicted of manslaughter for killing her husband, Howard Mahoney. Howard died intestate and the probate court determined that it would be unjust to allow Charlotte to profit from her husband’s death and decreed the residue of his estate to his parents rather than to her as required by Vt. Stat. Ann. Ch. 14, § 551(2). Charlotte challenged the decision.

Issue:

Can a widow, who was convicted of manslaughter in connection with the death of her husband, inherit from the latter’s estate?

Answer:

Yes.

Conclusion:

According to the Court, the question presented in the case was one of first impression in Vermont. The general rule of descent was that if a decedent was married and left no issue, his surviving spouse should be entitled to the whole of decedent’s estate if it did not exceed $8,000. The Court noted that there was no statutory provision in Vermont regulating the descent and distribution of property from the decedent to the slayer; as such, there was no statutory basis for depriving the wife of her rights under Ch. 14, § 551(2). The Court recognized that the wife should not be permitted to profit from her husband's death if she intentionally killed him and granted the estate administrator 60 days in which to apply to the court of chancery, which had the equitable power to impose a constructive trust on the wife in favor of the parents. Because the manslaughter conviction did not delineate between voluntary or involuntary manslaughter, the intentional killing of the husband would have to be proved in the chancery court before a constructive trust could be imposed. If the chancery court's jurisdiction was not invoked within 60 days, the wife would inherit the property.

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