Slayer Statute: Can Chris Watts, alleged killer of his wife and children, inherit from his spouse?

In a story that has been all over the news this summer, a pregnant Colorado mom — Shan’ann Watts was killed, allegedly by her husband Chris Watts, in August along with her two young daughters.

Recently it has been reported that paperwork was filed in probate court in Colorado by Shan’ann’s father revealing she did not have a will. Under intestate law, Chris would stand to inherit his spouse’s entire estate.  This begs the question can alleged killer Chris Watts inherit from his wife?

Colorado, like New Jersey, has what is known as a “Slayer Statute.” The equitable principal behind such a statute — that a wrongdoer should not be able to profit from his own wrong — has been part of the common law in most states for decades.  In New Jersey, the Slayer Statute — N.J.S.A. § 3B:7-1.1 et seq. provides that:

An individual who is responsible for the intentional killing of the decedent forfeits all benefits under this title with respect to the decedent’s estate, including an intestate share, an elective share, an omitted spouse’s, domestic partner’s or child’s share, exempt property and a family allowance. If the decedent died intestate, the decedent’s intestate estate passes as if the killer disclaimed his share.

In order for the Slayer Statute to be triggered in New Jersey, there must be either a final judgment of conviction establishing responsibility for the intentional killing of the decedent or a determination by the court, by a preponderance of evidence, that the individual was responsible for the intentional killing of the decedent. N.J.S.A. § 3B:7-6.  Much of the case law in New Jersey focuses on whether a killing was intentional .

The Colorado statute is slightly different defining a “felonious killing”, as “the killing of the decedent by an individual who, as a result thereof, is convicted of, pleads guilty to, or enters a plea of nolo contendere to the crime of murder in the first or second degree or manslaughter.” Colo. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 15-11-803 (West).  Thus, in Colorado, intent is not a factor in whether the statute applies.

Questions as to whether an alleged killer can access funds before a conviction (often to fund his/her defense), whether mental capacity prevents one from killing intentional, and many more are the topic of much debate as to the statute.

In the end, whether Chris Watts is convicted or pleads guilty of killing his wife, there are strong equitable principles in the common law and statutorily for Shan’nann’s family to use to argue that he should not profit from his alleged wrongdoing.