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Duncan v. Vassaur

    Brief Fact Summary. Property owned in joint tenancy by husband (Edgar Vassaur Jr.) and wife (Betty Vassaur) was in dispute when wife killed husband.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. Under the Oklahoma “slayer statue” the wife could not profit from her killing of Edgar Vassaur Jr., and the joint tenancy was terminated and converted to a tenancy in common.

    Facts. Edgar Vassaur Jr. (husband) owned property in fee simple prior to his marriage to Betty Vassaur. Then, Edgar Vassaur Jr. conveyed the property to Edgar Vassaur Jr. and to Betty Vassaur as joint tenants by a warranty deed on June 30, 1969. On August 9, 1971, Betty shot and killed Edgar Vassaur Jr. On September 30, 1971, after being charged with first degree murder for the killing, Betty Vassaur conveyed the property to William Duncan, the Appellee. Edgar Vassaur Sr. is the Appellant and administrator of his son’s estate and claimed ownership of one-half of the property, a lien on the balance in the amount of proceeds of a credit life insurance policy on Edgar Vassaur Jr.’s life, and another lien in the amount of a home improvement loan which had been repaid by the estate. William Duncan had filed an action to quiet title in the property in himself against the estate of Edgar Vassaur Jr. Edgar Vassaur Sr. filed a cross petition in the quiet title action, to which William Duncan
    demurred and moved for a judgment of the pleadings. The trial court sustained the demurrer and granted Duncan’s motion for judgment on the pleadings. Edgar Vassaur Sr., for the estate, appealed.

    Issue. Does the Oklahoma “slayer statute” apply in this case to terminate the joint tenancy such that Edgar Vassaur Jr.’s estate owns an undivided one-half of the property?

    Held. Yes. The estate owns a one-half interest. [The rest of the holding is below].
    The Oklahoma “slayer statue” provides that “No person who is convicted of murder or manslaughter in the first degree under the laws of this State. . . of having taken. . . the life of another, shall inherit from such person, or receive any interest in the estate of the decedent, or take by devise, or legacy, or descent and distribution, from him, or her, any portion of his or her estate. . .” [84 O.S. 1971 Section:231]. The statute relates clearly to the manner in which the property devolves, as whether the victim dies testate or intestate. That portion of the law is, in this jurisdiction, a matter solely for the legislature. However, the question of taking by joint tenancy with right of survivorship is a matter of first impression in this jurisdiction.
    This court has held in prior cases that a joint tenancy can be terminated by actions of the parties which is inconsistent with the continuing existence of a joint tenancy. The murder in this case was held to be inconsistent with the continued existence of a joint tenancy. Therefore, the Court held that the joint tenancy was terminated and separated at the time the murder was committed.
    The Court discusses a range of opinions in these cases as to what the result of the termination of the joint tenancy means, but determines that the most equitable result is to hold that by the murder, the joint tenancy is separated and terminated and one-half of the property should go to the heirs of the deceased husband (victim) and the other half should go to the murderer wife, or to her heirs, when deceased. The joint tenancy is changed to a tenancy in common.
    The purpose of the Court’s holding is to deprive a criminal from profiting from the fruits of her crime. The Court cites cases from other jurisdictions to support its holding.
    The Court held that the estate of the decedent was entitled to one-half of the rent collected on the property by Duncan, which is a business building, which the Court ordered. The Court also held that the credit life insurance policy, which was paid by the Okmulgee Savings and Loan Association to satisfy the mortgage on the property, should create a lien on Duncan’s one-half of the property in favor of the estate of decedent. Finally, that the estate should be given a lien against Duncan’s one-half of the property to secure compensation of one-half the amount paid by the estate on an improvement loan on the property.
    The Court also held that, since the trial court did not consider the question of whether Duncan was an innocent purchaser for value, the case should be remanded for the trial court to provide Duncan with an opportunity to raise the defense. However, the Court found that it would be inconceivable that Duncan did not know that his daughter had killed her husband when she conveyed her interest in the property to Duncan.

    Discussion. This case provides a good example of the operation of a “slayer statute.” The cases involving such a statute come up in devises by will and by intestate succession more often than by right of survivorship from an estate created by an inter vivos transaction.


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