Who Would Inherit the Emperor’s Estate?

As loyal readers of this blog know, our team has previously posted analyses of the fictional estates of the Star Wars universe (Han Solo, Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker). We now turn our attention to who would inherit Emperor Palpatine’s estate in light of the most recent Star Wars film The Rise of Skywalker.

Spoiler Alert: (this post contains spoilers about the recent Star Wars film The Rise of Skywalker).

Everyone thought that Emperor Palpatine (“Emperor”) died at the end of The Return of the Jedi when Darth Vader heroically sacrificed himself, on behalf of his imperiled son Luke, and threw the lightning-obsessed Emperor down that long, seemingly endless air shaft.

However, much to everyone’s surprise, the Emperor apparently survived that epic toss, had been living in exile in the gloomy location of Exegol, and still was running the Galaxy. Nevertheless, at the dramatic end of the recent film The Rise of Skywalker, the Emperor (apparently) died (again). He ultimately succumbed after his epic battle with both Rey and Ben Solo/Kylo Ren.

During the film, it was also revealed that Rey was, in fact, the granddaughter of the Emperor. It was also revealed that her parents were deceased, as well.

For purposes of this blog post, we will assume that the Emperor had amassed substantial assets in light of his decades-long reign. We will assume that he had various real estate holdings, investments, and bank accounts. We will also assume the Empire had a solid 401(k) matching program, which resulted in even more substantial assets and property at the time of his passing.

So the question is: who would inherit the Emperor’s estate?

First, if the Emperor had a will, then, assuming it was properly executed, his will would control his probate estate. As we have discussed in a prior post, it is important to keep in mind that any nonprobate/nontestamentary assets may pass outside the Will and by other means. For example, assets held jointly with right of survivorship would generally pass to the surviving co-owner. Property held with a payable on death designation will also normally pass to the designated beneficiary (assuming such beneficiary still survived). So if the Emperor had designated, for example, General Hux as the payable-on-death beneficiary of his checking account, that designation would normally control. Except, in this case, General Hux predeceased the Emperor in the movie. As a result, that payable-on-death designation would likely fail (although it would be important to check the account agreement and any applicable statutes to analyze the issue).

Given the Emperor’s seemingly never-ending level of self-confidence, we will assume that he thought he would live forever and would have no need for a will. In light of this, we will assume that he passed away intestate (without a will). In that case, the statutory intestacy scheme of his state would apply. We will use Virginia’s intestacy scheme for purposes of this post. The statutory intestacy scheme sets forth the categories of persons who stand to inherit the estate of a person who passes away without a will.

It is not known whether the Emperor had a surviving spouse. If he did (and he had no children other than those children that he had with his surviving spouse), then all of his estate would pass to his surviving spouse. If he had a surviving spouse as well as children with another person, then one-third (1/3) of his estate would pass to his surviving spouse and two-thirds (2/3) would pass to his surviving children and their descendants.

As mentioned above, the Emperor did not appear to have any surviving spouse or surviving children. Under the Virginia intestacy scheme, if he had no surviving spouse and no surviving children, then his estate would next pass to his grandchildren, if any. In this case, Rey is the only known grandchild of the Emperor, so she would stand to inherit his estate.

However, Rey may face a serious legal hurdle when it comes to inheriting the Emperor’s estate. The reason being is that other potential heirs of the Emperor may try to invoke the slayer statute. The slayer statute codifies the sound policy that those who kill should not inherit from their victims. If Rey is found to be a “slayer” for purposes of the slayer statute, then she would be barred from taking the Emperor’s estate or receiving any benefits as the result of his passing.

Under Virginia law, the slayer statute prevents anyone deemed to have committed murder or voluntary manslaughter from inheriting any property from the victim. Typically, upon a conviction of such a charge, the potential heirs could file suit seeking a judicial declaration that the slayer is prevented from inheriting any property from the deceased victim.

Notably, the slayer statute does not require a criminal charge or conviction. Even in cases in which the slayer is not charged or convicted of such a crime, he still may be deemed to be a “slayer” in the civil lawsuit. Additionally (and interestingly), a civil case seeking the application of the slayer statute, without a criminal conviction having been entered, would require a lesser standard of proof (requiring merely a showing by a preponderance of the evidence, compared to a criminal conviction, which requires evidence to establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt).

In the movie, Rey and the Emperor brawled in an epic battle to determine the fate of the Galaxy. Ultimately, Rey and Ben Solo prevailed by deflecting the Emperor’s lightning attacks back at him, killing him. Under these circumstances, it would seem that Rey would have a plausible self-defense argument to any subsequent criminal charge of homicide. Still, even if criminal charges were not brought against Rey, potential heirs of the Emperor would have standing to file suit against her, seeking to have her deemed a “slayer” pursuant to the slayer statute. Such lawsuit would likely seek a court order preventing her from inheriting from the Emperor. Given the Emperor’s aggression towards Rey in the final struggle, it is unlikely that Rey would be held to be a “slayer” under the applicable slayer statute. As a result, Rey would very much likely inherit the Emperor’s estate as his sole heir at law under the intestacy scheme.

On a separate note, Virginia’s intestacy scheme also includes a requirement that any heir survive the deceased person by at least 120 hours as a condition to inheriting any property. This policy is designed to avoid unduly burdensome inheritance situations where family members ultimately pass away as a result of the same accident (a car accident, for example) within just a few days of one another. In addition to the profound tragedy incumbent in such events, legally speaking, effecting inheritances between such family members in such circumstances (when they pass away within just a few days of one another) can be an administrative burden. In the film, it appeared for a brief moment that Rey had died following her counterattack against the Emperor. However, Ben Solo was able to revive her. Ultimately, Rey did not die, and so it appears that she would be considered to have survived the Emperor for the requisite 120 hours to inherit his estate.

Estate disputes are full of complex legal issues. If faced with an estate dispute, it is best to speak with an experienced estate dispute attorney.

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