The Michigan Court of Appeals upheld an Oakland County probate judge in Estate of Maxine Hadley, unpublished per curiam opinion of the Court of Appeals, issued December 21st, 2017 (Docket No. 332888) and ruled that a son should not inherit after committing a non-murder felony which resulted in his mother’s death.
Ms. Hadley died during a house fire as a result of her son lighting a cigarette near a propane tank on a lower level. Her son, Mr. Beetschen, admitted that he was upset, intoxicated and knew that the propane tank was leaking downstairs where he ignited the cigarette. He was subsequently arrested and charged with first degree arson and open murder in connection to his mother’s death. Before his trial, he pled guilty to involuntary manslaughter and second-degree arson. As a result of his convictions, Mr. Beetschen was sentenced to 20 to 60 years in state prison for arson and 15 to 30 years in state prison for involuntary manslaughter. None of these convictions require a showing that an individual intended to kill.
His brother, the personal representative of Ms. Hadley’s estate, filed a petition in Oakland County Probate Court asking for a determination whether Mr. Beetschen should be deprived of his inheritance due to his crimes under Michigan’s “slayer statute”. MCL 700.2803(1) provides that “[a]n individual who feloniously and intentionally kills… the decedent forfeits all benefits… with respect to the decedent’s estate.” The slayer rule, which exists in most U.S. states in some form, is designed to prevent killers from obtaining any kind of profit whatsoever from their crimes. Michigan courts have held convictions for murder and voluntary manslaughter to be more than sufficient to trigger the slayer rule. Also, according to MCL 700.2803(6), “in the absence of a conviction, the court… shall determine whether, under the preponderance of evidence standard, the individual would be found criminally accountable for the felonious and intentional killing of the decedent.”
Mr. Beetschen argued that the “slayer statute” didn’t apply to him since he was convicted of involuntary manslaughter because that crime does not require him to intentionally kill the decedent. Furthermore, according to Mr. Beetschen, the probate court is barred from determining on its own whether he would be found criminally responsible for a felonious and intentional killing because he was already convicted of a crime. The probate court nevertheless held a hearing to determine if he was criminally responsible of a felonious and intentional killing and determined that Mr. Beetschen was, causing him to forfeit his inheritance.
The Court of Appeals held that the probate court did not make a mistake in determining criminal responsibility because the phrase “in absence of a conviction” is intended to mean the absence of a conviction for a felonious and intentional killing. Since no such conviction was made, the probate court was free to move forward. Furthermore, the probate court had sufficient evidence to work with to make the determination for several reasons. First, the death certificate determined the cause of death was carbon monoxide poisoning caused by the fire that Mr. Beetschen started. Second, a witness testified in a preliminary hearing in his criminal case that Mr. Beetschen was angry, ranting and attempted to attach a nozzle to the propane tank while stating he was “going to burn his mother’s face off.” The witness further elaborated that he could not stop Mr. Beetschen before a fire started. Third, a fire investigator testified that the fire was caused by the leaking probate tank. Fourth, the autopsy determine that the cause of death was a homicide. Finally, Mr. Beetschen admitted his plea hearing that he was the one who lit the cigarette that started the fire.
A “preponderance of the evidence” standard is not the same as the “guilty beyond a reasonable doubt” standard required to convict for crimes. Preponderance of the evidence means that it was more than likely, or at least 51% vs. 49% certain, that Mr. Beetschen was criminally responsible for a felonious and intentional death. The threshold was exceeded and the probate court rightfully deprived Mr. Beetschen of his inheritance from Ms. Hadley’s estate. Even if the prosecutor could not successfully convict Ms. Hadley’s son of first degree arson or open murder beyond a reasonable doubt, the more relaxed evidence standards under the probate code can allow the court to make the requisite findings under the “slayer statute” to prevent this killer from profiting from his crimes.