Budwit v. Herr, 58

CourtSupreme Court of Michigan
Citation63 N.W.2d 841,339 Mich. 265
Docket NumberNo. 58,58
PartiesBUDWIT v. HERR et al.
Decision Date05 April 1954

James C. Daner, Mount Clemens, for plaintiffs and cross-appellants.

Macy E. Watkins, Neale & Hirt, Mount Clemens, for defendants and appellants.

Before the Entire Bench.

CARR, Justice.

On June 26, 1948, the defendant Harold Bauman shot and killed his wife Veda. On trial he was convicted by the jury of second degree murder and was sentenced to life imprisonment. The conviction and sentence were affirmed by this Court in People v. Bauman, 332 Mich. 198, 50 N.W.2d 757, wherein the facts attending the commission of the offense are set forth.

At the time of her death Veda Bauman was the owner of a beauty shop business in the city of Mt. Clemens and of an insurance policy in the sum of $1,000 issued by the Prudential Insurance Company of America, in which Harold Bauman was named as the beneficiary. She and her husband were also the owners, as tenants by the entireties, of real property. Following her death the defendant Erma Herr was appointed administratrix of her estate. The total net value of the personal property owned by Veda Bauman is approximately $1,500, and the value of the entireties property, including an equity in a land contract, is approximately $2,000. Under power of attorney, the defendant Emma Bauman, the mother of Harold, was, immediately prior to the bringing of the instant suit, collecting the rent falling due under leases of the real estate, it being her claim and that of her son that the latter was then the sole owner of such property.

Veda Bauman left no children surviving her. Plaintiffs herein brought the instant suit as her parents and next of kin for the primary purpose of obtaining a determination as to the rights of Harold Bauman in the insurance policy, the personalty referred to, and the real estate. They sought injunctive relief against defendant Emma Bauman to restrain her from continuing to collect rentals under the power of attorney, and against defendant administratrix to prevent her from turning over to Harold Bauman any part or portion of the estate of his wife. A temporary injunction was granted, and the court appointed defendant Emma Bauman as the agent of the court for the purpose of collecting the rentals in question, and maintaining the property including payments on the land contract. It was further ordered that she account when so required by the court for all monies coming into her possession.

The case was tried in the circuit court on a stipulation of facts and a statement of the issues involved, such issues relating to the disposition of the proceeds of the insurance policy, the determination whether Harold Bauman, having murdered his wife, was barred from taking any part or portion of her property under the statutes of the State pertaining to the descent and distribution of the estates of deceased persons, and the nature and extent of his interest in the real estate that he and his wife had owned as tenants by the entireties. It was conceded in the stipulation that the murder was not committed by Harold Bauman for the express purpose of obtaining the property of his wife. The trial court concluded that because of the fact that Harold Bauman had murdered his wife he was not entitled to the proceeds of the insurance policy or to share in the distribution of the personal property in her estate. It was further determined and decreed that the plaintiffs, as heirs of their daughter, are the owners, as tenants in common, of an undivided one-half interest in the real property in question, defendant Harold Bauman taking the other half interest.

From the decree entered defendants have appealed, claiming that the trial court was in error in holding that Harold Bauman was barred from taking any distributive share in the estate of Veda Bauman and that he was entitled only to a half interest in the real property that had been owned by the spouses as tenants by the entireties. Plaintiffs have cross-appealed, contending that the entire interest in the real estate should be granted to them as heirs of their daughter. The defendant administratrix did not file an answer to the bill of complaint, nor has she joined in either appeal.

The provision of the trial court's decree with reference to the proceeds of the insurance policy is not in question. A similar situation was involved in Ohio State Life Ins. Co. v. Barron, 274 Mich. 22, 263 N.W. 786, in which it was held that the beneficiary under a policy of life insurance who has feloniously caused the death of the insured may not recover thereon. In reaching such conclusion this Court determined from the record that the killer who subsequently committed suicide, was not insane and that under the generally accepted rule his estate was not entitled to the proceeds of the policy, citing New York Mutual Life Ins. Co. v. Armstrong, 117 U.S. 591, 6 S.Ct. 877, 29 L.Ed. 997. A like determination was reached in Slocum v. Metropolitan Life Ins. Co., 245 Mass. 565, 139 N.E. 816, 27 A.L.R. 1517.

Is defendant Harold Bauman barred because of his criminal act from taking any distributive share of the personal property in the estate of Veda Bauman? The statutes of the State relating to the distribution and descent of property of persons dying intestate do not specifically fefer to a situation of this nature. In Garwols v. Bankers Trust Co., 251 Mich. 420, 232 N.W. 239, 241, a son murdered his mother in order that he might inherit her property. It was urged in his behalf that the matter of descent and distribution of estates was governed wholly by statute, and that the rule of the common law could not be invoked to bar him from taking as an heir and distributee. This Court rejected the claim, holding that the statutes should not be construed as applying to a special situation of the character then before it, and that it might be assumed that the legislature intended such a case to be subject to the rules of the common law. It was recognized that decisions on the subject were not in harmony. The majority of the Court limited the holding to the precise question involved, that is, whether an heir who murders his ancester for the purpose of obtaining property may inherit, or take by way of distribution, concluding that for reasons based on equity and public policy he should not be permitted to do so. It may be noted that three members of the Court, concurring in the result, joined in an opinion suggesting that the rule should be stated in broader terms than in the majority opinion, and should apply in all cases involving the right to take of one intentionally and feloniously causing the death of the person from whom the inheritance, devise or bequest would come.

It is significant that in the Garwols Case the majority opinion quoted with approval from Wharton on Homicide (3d Ed.), § 665, as follows:

"To permit a person who commits a murder, or any person claiming under him, to benefit by his criminal act, would be contrary to public policy. And no devisee can take under the will of a testator whose death has been caused by the criminal and felonious act of the devisee himself. And, in applying this rule, no distinction can be made between a death caused by murder and one caused by manslaughter Nor does the common-law right of succession by descent operate in favor of one who wilfully takes the life of his ancester for the purpose of succeeding to his property rights. And the common-law right of a man to succeed to the property of his wife upon her death does not operate in favor of one who murders his wife. And the rule that the common-law doctrine of succession to property does not operate in favor of one who wilfully takes the life of his ancester should apply against any person claiming through or under the slayer. Nor does a rule of law that a common-law right of succession to property does not operate in favor of one who wilfully takes the life of his ancestor contravene a constitutional provision that a conviction of crime shall not work a forfeiture of the estate."

The Court also cited Slocum v. Metropolitan Life Ins. Co., supra [245 Mass. 565, 139 N.E. 818]. The Massachusetts court there held that the proceeds of the insurance policy in question should be paid to the administrator of the estate of the deceased and that the husband, who feloniously took the life of the insured, would not be entitled to any part or portion thereof that might be left after the payment of debts and the expenses of administration. In reaching such conclusion it was said:

'The same principle of public policy which precludes him from claiming directly under the insurance contract equally precludes him from claiming under the statute of descent and distribution. (Citing cases.)'

It may be noted that this language was quoted with approval in the Garwols Case.

While the specific question at issue has not been previously passed on by this Court, we think that the applicable rule is that one who feloniously takes the life of another is not entitled under the statutes of descent and distribution of this State to inherit or receive any part or portion of the property in the estate of such deceased, either as an heir or as distributee. Such rule is consistent with the opinions in the cases above cited. Under accepted principles of public policy, equity and justice, one may not be permitted to profit by his criminal act. The trial judge so held in the instant case, and we are in accord with his conclusion.

This brings us to a consideration of the status of the property owned by Veda and Harold Bauman as tenants by the entireties. The incidents of such an estate have been repeatedly considered and discussed by this Court and by other courts throughout the country. In 41 C.J.S., Husband and Wife, § 33(b), p. 457, it is said:

'An estate by entirety is sometimes regarded as a species of, or modified form of, joint tenancy, the modification being...

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