Woman Who Stabbed Husband While He Slept Can’t Get His Pension

Employee Benefits News examines legal developments that impact the employee benefits and executive compensation employers provide, including federal and state legislation, rules from federal...

By Carmen Castro-Pagan

A woman who stabbed her husband while he slept but was later found not guilty by reason of insanity isn’t entitled to receive surviving spouse pension benefits.

The Employee Retirement Income Security Act generally would require the pension plan to pay the benefits to the woman because she was the surviving spouse. But Illinois, like most states, has a “slayer statute” that prohibits a person from financially benefiting from the murder of another. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit held Jan. 29 that ERISA doesn’t preempt Illinois’ slayer statute.

The case is noteworthy for addressing an issue not yet resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court—whether ERISA preempts state slayer laws. Nearly every state has adopted these statutes and the Supreme Court has declined to address the issue at least twice—in 1994 and 2009, according to court documents. No federal court of appeals has faced the question since 1994.

In their ruling, the three judges of the Seventh Circuit agreed with the few courts that have held that ERISA doesn’t preempt state slayer laws in North Dakota, New York, and Nevada.

The axiom that an individual who kills a plan participant can’t recover plan benefits “is a well-established legal principle which predates ERISA,” the judges said.

In their ruling, the judges further rejected the woman’s argument that the Illinois law didn’t apply to her because she was found not guilty by reason of insanity.

Relying on a decision by an Illinois appeals court, the judges held that the Illinois slayer law applies to bar recovery by individuals who commit a killing but are found not guilty of murder by reason of insanity.

The woman intentionally stabbed her husband in his sleep and intentionally hit him with a bat to prevent him from calling the police, the judges said. Although she was unable to appreciate the criminality of her conduct, she intended her actions, the judges said.

Judge Joel M. Flaum issued the opinion, which was joined by Judges Michael S. Kanne, and Ilana Diamond Rovner.

Dowd Bloch Bennett Cervone Auerbach & Yokich represents the fund. Debofsky & Associates PC represents the woman. Jason M. Friedman represents the estate.

The case is Laborers’ Pension Fund v. Miscevic, 7th Cir., No. 17-2022, order affirming district court decision 1/29/18.

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