Illinois federal court denies potential slayer's claim

In BANNER LIFE INS. CO. v. Shelton, the United States District Court, for the Northern District of Illinois Eastern Division considered whether a murdered decedent’s spouse who was also the beneficiary of her life insurance policy should receive the life insurance insurance proceeds if the investigation into the crime was still pending. The court considered under the Illinois Slayer Statute, since the beneficiary had not been ruled out as the killer.

On April 6, 2017, Ramona Shelton died of multiple gunshot wounds. At the time of her death, Ramona had a life insurance policy issued by Banner Life Insurance. The policy designated Derek Shelton, Ramona’s husband as the primary beneficiary and her children, as contingent beneficiaries.

After an inquiry, the medical examiner concluded that Ramona’s death was a homicide.  Armed with this conclusion, the Cook County Sheriff's Department began to investigate the alleged homicide. As a matter of routine, the Sherriff’s Department sought out Derek for information. Derek cooperated with investigators, was interviewed, supplied alibi witnesses, supplied exculpatory documents, and voluntarily took a polygraph test.

The investigation remained open while the matter concerning the rightful beneficiary of the insurance proceeds was determined. Throughout the investigation Sherriff’s Department did not say that Derek was a person of interest, target, or implicated in the death of Romana. The investigation, however, remained open and ongoing while the matter of the insurance proceeds was resolved.

In June 2017, Derek Shelton notified Banner of Romana's death, and filed the required claim forms. On October 2, 2017. Banner then filed an interpleader action and requested the insurance proceeds be deposited with the court. Banner asserting that it could not pay the insurance proceeds given that homicide investigation involving Ramona’s death had not been concluded. Banner further requested the court appoint a Guardian Ad Litem on behalf of Romana's minor children.

The court discharged Banner from the litigation and appointed a Guardian Ad Litem on behalf of Romana's minor children. The GAL objected to Shelton receiving the policy proceeds because Romana's homicide case remained open at the time.

In response to the GAL’s position, Derek then moved for summary judgment with respect to Banner’s interpleader complaint. Citing the Illinois Slayer Statute which states in part, "[a] person who intentionally and unjustifiably causes the death of another shall not receive any property, benefit or other interest by reason of the death, whether as heir, legatee, [or] beneficiary as the basis for relief. Shelton argued as the sole primary beneficiary of the policy and the only person who has asserted a claim to the funds and given the fact he did not “intentionally and unjustifiably” cause Ramona’s death there is no genuine issue of material fact to be litigated in the and is thus entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.   The Court denied Derek’s motion for summary judgment without prejudice allowing him the right to refile at the proper time. Derek appealed the denial of his motion.  

On appeal the Court reasoned that, as a preliminary matter Derek "sustained his burden of establishing a right to the insurance proceeds," and it becomes the burden of the objector to prove "a greater right thereto or, as in this case, some affirmative matter defeating plaintiff's claim." The court noted the mere fact that the homicide investigation remains open does not satisfy that burden; however, because the investigation remains open and ongoing, the GAL does not have access to any evidence that might help satisfy that burden thus without any more information the court could not as a matter of law award the proceeds to Shelton.

J. Michael YoungComment