Murdered Woman’s Parents Can’t Rely on State Slayer Statute

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By Jacklyn Wille

Oct. 28 — The parents of a deceased Oregon woman hit a roadblock in their effort to wrest life insurance proceeds from the man convicted of killing their daughter ( Herinckx v. Sanelle , 2016 BL 356084, Or. Ct. App., No. A159249, 10/26/16 ).

The couple had argued to a state court judge that Oregon’s “slayer statute”—which prohibits individuals from inheriting or receiving life insurance proceeds from someone they killed or abused—overrode the beneficiary designation in their daughter’s life insurance plan, which was executed in favor of her boyfriend and eventual killer, Paul Sanelle.

An Oregon appellate court ruled on Oct. 26 that the state’s slayer statute was preempted by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act and thus couldn’t be used to override the terms of the relevant ERISA-governed insurance plan. However, the court allowed the parents an opportunity to bring a “federal slayer claim” under ERISA. These claims have had some success in federal courts, including in a recent case involving a deceased employee of Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom LLP.

In finding the Oregon statute preempted by ERISA, the court noted that nearly every state has adopted some kind of slayer statute, and the laws vary in material ways—for example, with respect to the standard of proof necessary to forfeit benefits in the absence of a conviction. These variances can interfere with the national uniformity of benefit administration enshrined in ERISA, the court said.

The Oct. 26 decision was written by Judge Scott Shorr of the Oregon Court of Appeals. Judges Rex Armstrong and James C. Egan joined the decision.

George W. Kelly represented the parents. Andrew Altschul represented the insurer. Sanelle wasn’t represented by counsel.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jacklyn Wille in Washington at jwille@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jo-el J. Meyer at jmeyer@bna.com

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