In re Estate of Howard Mahoney Case Brief

Summary of In re Estate of Howard Mahoney, 126 Vt. 31 (1966)

Facts: The deceased, Howard Mahoney, was shot by his wife, Charlotte. She was subsequently tried for murder and found guilty of manslaughter. Mr. Mahoney had no issue and was only survived by his wife, father and mother. His father was appointed administrator of his estate totaling $3885, of which the Probate Court decreed to the father and mother in equal shares.

Issue: Whether a widow convicted of manslaughter in connection with the death of her husband, or the father and mother, should inherit from the estate?

Holding: The Probate ct was bound to follow the statutes of descent and distribution, and a decree from that court directly to the parents is in direct contravention with the statutes. The Court of Chancery is the proper jurisdiction to determine whether the widow wilfully killed her husband and charging her with a constructive trust.

Procedure: After notice and hearing the Probate Ct ordered the estate shares to be equally divided between the Father and Mother of the Deceased. Vt. S. Ct Deree reversed with directions that the proceedings herein be stayed for 60 days so Administrator may have opportunity to apply to Court of Chancery for relief.

Rule: Generally, the surviving spouse of a married decedent without issue shall be entitled to the whole estate if under $8000. Constructive trust is called for where the legatee or devisee murder the testator, then the slayer must convey the property to the heirs or next of kin.

Rationale: Vermont does not have a slayer statute. Other jurisdictions w/o slayer statutes apply one of three different measures. In the absence of such a statute, courts may apply common law principles and charge the spouse, heir, or legatee as a constructive trustee. Constructive trust doctrine does not fit all cases where a person has acquired property as a result of killing. A person who killed while insane, or if the slayer had a vested interest then he would have been entitled if no slaying had occurred. It is the intent to kill leads to the profit of the slayer that calls for the application of constructive trust to prevent unjust enrichment of the slayer by intentionally killing. Therefore, the line of distinction or limitation on the rule is whether voluntary manslaughter or voluntary, or a finding, based on a murder conviction, whether intentionally performed. The claim on the estate is a purely equitable one, thereby requiring the jurisdiction of the Court of Chancery, limited to aiding the Probate court and not the Probate Court.

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