Hawaii federal court determines application of slayer statute

 

In July 2018 the Federal District Court for Hawaii ruled in HARTFORD LIFE AND ACCIDENT INSURANCE COMPANY v. ADVIENTO, Civ. No. 16-00565 HG-RLP (D. Haw. July 10, 2018) that the Hawaii slayer statute precludes a husband who is found guilty of manslaughter, provoked by extreme mental and emotional disturbance of his life insurance policyholder spouse, from recovering the proceedings of a life insurance policy. 

The interpleader beneficiary dispute case was brought by the Hartford insurance company, who requested that the Court decide the rightful beneficiaries to the life insurance policy. The slayer spouse had requested that Hartford grant him the ability to designate the proceeds of his deceased spouse’s life insurance policy as he sees fit by giving the entire amount to his daughter. Hartford requested that the Court decide as to the rightful beneficiaries to the policy.

In 2004 a group life insurance policy was issued to Erlinda Adviento payable in the event of her accidental death. When the policy was issued, a beneficiary was not designated, therefore according to the terms of the policy the proceeds would be payable first to the spouse of the insured, and if not to the spouse, to the surviving children. In this case, Mrs. Adviento was married to Melchor Adviento, the circumstances surrounding the violent end to their marriage would provide the foundation for the legal questions presented to the court in this case.

On October 28, 2007, Mrs. Adviento was killed by her husband who was later found guilty by a jury of murder in the second degree. He was sentenced to a term of life imprisonment with the possibility of parole after a minimum of ten years imprisonment.

Mr. Adviento appealed the all the way to the Hawaii Supreme Court who found that the trial court failed to provide a jury instruction on the affirmative mitigating defense of extreme mental or emotional disturbance even though Defendant Adviento had chosen to waive the defense as part of trial strategy. The case was remanded back for retrial. After reaching a deal with prosecutors on the eve of trial Mr. Adviento pled guilty to a lesser charge of manslaughter and was sentenced to a term of imprisonment of 20 years. Mr. Adviento then requested the right to designate where the proceeds of his spouse’s life insurance policy are directed.

Hawaii’s slayer statute provides that an individual who "feloniously and intentionally kills the decedent forfeits all benefits" to the decedent's estate, including benefits to the decedent's life insurance policy. The court in Adviento was presented with the question of whether Mr. Adviento’s subsequent guilty plea for manslaughter would take his conduct outside the realm of the Hawaii slayer statute.

The court noted:

Slayer statutes are not penal, punitive, or compensatory. . . . Slayers statutes do not cause the killer to forfeit any of their own property. Rather, the rule prevents the killer from benefitting from the wrong he committed. The social interest served by refusing to permit a criminal to profit from his crime is greater than that served by the preservation and enforcement of legal rights of ownership

The court reasoned that under Hawaii law manslaughter is considered a felonious and intentional killing for purposes of the Hawaii slayer statute. The fact that Mr. Adviento’s plea agreement contained a factual finding that the killing of his wife was the product of extreme mental or emotional disturbance was irrelevant to considerations concerning the slayer statute given that a finding of extreme mental or emotional disturbance which precipitates a killing only offers a mitigating defense which reduces murder to manslaughter but does not negate the intent element of the crime. For the purposes of Hawaii’s slayer statute, an individual found guilty of an intentional killing regardless of mitigating circumstances is precluded from benefiting from their victim’s estate. 

If you are confronted with a beneficiary contest where the slayer statute is an issue, contact an experienced life insurance lawyer.