B.B. King’s Estate: Murder Allegations and the Slayer Rule

BB-King-Estate-LitigationTwo of B.B. King’s children have recently alleged that King’s business manager and personal assistant poisoned him prior to his death on May 14, 2015. The allegations surrounding the blues legend’s death implicate the slayer rule: a rule in the vast majority of states that provides that if a person is convicted of murdering a testator (the person who executed a will), the murderer cannot inherit any portion of the testator’s estate, but rather is deemed to have predeceased the testator for purposes of the distribution of the testator’s estate.

Rolling Stone reports:

A homicide probe into the death of B.B. King will be launched after two of the blues legend’s daughters accused his two closest aides, business manager LaVerne Toney and personal assistant Myron Johnson, of poisoning King prior to his May 14th death. In court documents released to The Associated Press, King’s daughters Karen Williams and Patty King said, “I believe my father was poisoned and that he was administered foreign substances. I believe my father was murdered.”

According to Patty King’s affidavit, she said she witnessed Toney administer two drops of an unknown substance on B.B. King’s tongue at night in the months before his death; Toney never told Patty King what the substance was. B.B. King gave Toney power of attorney years ago, the AP writes, as well as named her executor of his estate, which could be worth tens of millions of dollars.…

Nevada officials announced Monday that they would open a homicide investigation, adding that they now had jurisdiction over King’s body and conducted an autopsy Sunday, Reuters reports. Results are expected to take six to eight weeks; the fact that King was embalmed and displayed for public viewing shouldn’t affect those results, Clark County Coroner John Fudenberg said.

Source: “B.B. King Was Poisoned, Claim Bluesman’s Children” by Daniel Kreps, Rolling Stone, May 26, 2015.

Another source sheds light on the potential motives of his children:

Toney’s attorney Eric Brent Bryson calls the allegations beyond ridiculous and more than suspiciously timed.

“It’s about nothing more than a money grab, and it’s about people trying to get some attention on the coattails of a worldwide icon,” Bryson said on Tuesday. He pointed out that King’s children will only inherit $5,000 and his grandchildren $3,000.

Source: “B.B. King’s Kids Swear He Was Murdered” by John L. Smith, The Daily Beast, May 27, 2015.

It’s actually a very common phenomenon for family members and friends to suspect that an unscrupulous caregiver, scheming second spouse, or other greedy person had a role in expediting the death (or outright murder) of their relative. As an estate litigation attorney, I have had numerous clients over the years tell me their fears that their relative was murdered.

Why do people suspect an unscrupulous caregiver of murdering a family member? Sometimes the family members were attempting to gain access to their relative – whether through a guardianship and conservatorship petition (which may also seek the revocation of a power of attorney), or through the social services department – and they fear that the unscrupulous caregiver murdered the relative in order to prevent the family members from having access to the relative (and presumably help him break free from the isolation, abuse, or undue influence of the unscrupulous caregiver). Other times, they learn that their family member executed a new will and/or trust (either disinheriting them or reducing their inheritance, and benefiting the unscrupulous caregiver), and they fear that the unscrupulous caregiver murdered the relative in order to prevent the relative from subsequently changing back his estate plan. Other times, the family members believe that the unscrupulous caregiver abused the relative and that the caregiver murdered the relative in order to cover up the abuse.

As a result, given how common these concerns are among family members of relatives who die under potentially suspicious circumstances, it’s rather common for the police to launch an investigation and for a coroner to conduct an autopsy. Investigations and autopsies can take some time, which often leaves the family in a state of worry for weeks on end. In light of the slayer rule, it’s important for families not just to view a situation like that as a criminal matter (to be handled by the police), but rather also to view it as a civil matter and consult with an estate litigation attorney.

I did some basic internet research and was not able to locate an article that definitely stated what parties are named beneficiaries in a will and/or trust that King enacted. However, if Toney was named as a beneficiary in King’s will and/or trust, the situation could get very interesting. In that case, King’s children could seek to invoke the slayer rule to try to prevent Toney from receiving any assets pursuant to King’s will and/or trust.

Slayer rules (also called “slayer statutes”) vary in their wording from state to state, but all generally prohibit a party who was convicted of the crime of murdering the testator from inheriting via his will. Some slayer statutes also apply in instances of a manslaughter conviction. Some slayer statutes solely provide that the murderer doesn’t take via the testator’s will; others also provide that the murderer does not take via beneficiary designations, right of survivorship, etc.

bb-king-estate-conflictVirginia has a rather broad slayer statute (codified in Title 64.2, Chapter 25) that defines a slayer as “any person (i) who is convicted of the murder or voluntary manslaughter of the decedent or, (ii) in the absence of such conviction, who is determined, whether before or after his death, by a court of appropriate jurisdiction by a preponderance of the evidence to have committed one of the offenses listed in clause (i) resulting in the death of the decedent.”

The statute is broad in several respects: voluntary manslaughter is easier to prove than murder, and the statute also permits a litigant to seek to prove in a civil proceeding (by the lower evidentiary standard of a “preponderance of the evidence” compared to the higher evidentiary standard in criminal proceedings of “beyond a reasonable doubt”) that the slayer committed either murder or voluntary manslaughter.

Virginia law also provides that the slayer statute is not the only remedy available to aggrieved family members or others with standing to bring a proceeding seeking to bar a party from taking pursuant to a will and/or trust. Virginia Code Section 64.2-2511 provides that the slayer statute is “not intended to be exclusive” and that “all common law rights and remedies that prevent one who has participated in the willful and unlawful killing of another from profiting by his wrong shall continue to exist in the Commonwealth.”

This statute is referring to the common law remedy whereby a judge may impose what’s called a “constructive trust” upon any property that a beneficiary who brought about the death of another would otherwise receive. See, e.g., Sundin v. Klein, 221 Va. 232 (1980). A constructive trust is an equitable remedy whereby a court declares that certain property is held in trust for the benefit of another (effectively, the court would rule that the property that would otherwise pass to the slayer pursuant to the will should instead be distributed as if the slayer predeceased the testator). In other words, Virginia law provides that even if (i) a slayer is not convicted of murder or voluntary manslaughter in connection with the death of a testator, or (ii) the slayer is not found in a civil proceeding to have committed murder or voluntary manslaughter in connection with the death of a testator, then the slayer can still be barred from inheriting from the testator if the slayer is found to have participated in the willful and unlawful killing of the testator.

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