A Real-Life Look at the Application of the Slayer Statute

Mercifully, in my many years in private practice, I rarely, perhaps never, had cause to review the slayer statutes. After all, the only time that an attorney needs to review those statutes exists in tragic cases in which someone tries to derive a financial benefit from another person in whose death they may have played a role. I reviewed them in preparing this blog and found them adequate and oddly comforting. I remember being intrigued the first time I heard about Kouri Richins. She’s not a celebrity but her actions have garnered her some notoriety. Celebrity stories about a lack of proper Estate Planning and attorneys behaving badly make for great blogs. Both types of stories provide lessons for attorneys and clients alike. This story fits neither of those categories yet serves as a reminder of the importance of proper Estate Planning and underscores many of the lessons found in those stories.

Kouri Richins was married to Eric Richins and they had three children together. Eric died in 2022 and about a year after his death, Kouri authored a children’s book about grieving the loss of a loved one. In an interview that she gave in early 2023, Kouri said that she wrote the book to help her minor children cope with their father’s death. Shortly thereafter, authorities arrested Kouri in connection with her husband’s death. As of this writing, Kouri stands accused of murdering Eric by serving him a cocktail laced with a lethal dose of fentanyl. Prosecutors and Eric’s family have disclosed several unfavorable facts regarding Kouri’s behavior and it seems not only that she attempted to kill him several times before succeeding, but that she had a financial motive for killing her husband. It also seems that Eric long suspected her of trying to kill him. All of these facts underscore the opening sentence – one only reviews the slayer statutes in the most tragic of cases when someone tries to derive a financial profit from someone in whose death they played a role.

According to prosecutors, Kouri withdrew money from Eric’s bank accounts without his knowledge or permission. She tried to change the beneficiary designation on his life insurance policy to name herself as the sole beneficiary. According to allegations made in the civil lawsuit filed by Eric’s family, Kouri used his Property Power of Attorney to secure a $250,000 loan and repeatedly took checks from his business, using them for her own benefit. A forensic document examiner found evidence that Kouri forged some of Eric’s financial documents. Interestingly, Eric took steps during his life to protect himself from Kouri. He named someone else as his healthcare agent and asked his sister to serve as Trustee. It’s unclear whether Eric updated his Property Power of Attorney and named someone other than Kouri to act in that capacity and it’s unclear whether a Will or Trust governs distribution of Eric’s assets. Kouri and Eric signed a prenuptial agreement that left Eric’s business interest to Kouri if they were married at the time of his death, which provides the basis for Kouri’s lawsuit. The lawsuit alleges that Eric’s estate owes Kouri $3.6 million for the value of their family home, his business interests, and payments she made to maintain the home. Thankfully, Utah, like most other states, has statutes designed to prevent Kouri from profiting from Eric’s death.

Unfortunately, as is often the case, Utah’s “slayer statues” require that the murderer be found guilty of the crime by criminal standards (beyond a reasonable doubt), which are far higher than those required in civil court (a preponderance of the evidence). Utah’s statute, like most others, prevents a surviving spouse from receiving an intestate share, an elective share, a spouse’s share, a homestead allowance, exempt property, or a family allowance from their victim’s estate. Additionally, Utah’s statute prevents the killer from receiving property under a revocable instrument, such as a revocable trust, removes any general or limited power of appointment, disqualifies the killer from serving in any fiduciary capacity, and severs the interest of the decedent and killer in any joint tenancy property making it tenants in common property. The statute goes on to prevent the killer from profiting from the killer’s wrong in any way not already covered by the statute.

This article barely scratches the surface of a case that will continue to play out in public over the next several months. As stated in the beginning, it highlights the importance of keeping an Estate Plan updated. When things changed for Eric, he took steps to prevent Kouri from serving in fiduciary capacities and presumably, from inheriting assets from his estate. Unfortunately, Eric failed to go far enough and paid the ultimate price. The biggest tragedy of the story is that Kouri’s acts likely left her three children without either of their parents. Hopefully, Eric’s plan contained provisions nominating guardians to care for his children now that neither he nor Kouri can. That’s what a comprehensive Estate Plan does, plans for the unthinkable, solves problems that don’t yet exist, and gives peace of mind.