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Old Virginia “Slayer Statute” Prevents Slayer’s Descendants from Inheriting

Bell v. Casper
No. 101004 (Supreme Court of Virginia, September 16, 2011)

by Colleen K. O’Brien, Associate
Semmes, Bowen & Semmes (

In 2005, the Decedent was shot and killed by her son. The decedent was survived by her mother, the murderer, and the murderer’s children. The Decedent’s Will identified her son, the murderer, as the sole heir. The murderer’s children brought a declaratory judgment action seeking a judicial determination that their father was a slayer for purposes of the Slayer Statute, and that they be named as heirs of the victim’s estate. The Decedent’s mother opposed the children’s action, and sought to be declared the sole beneficiary of the estate. The issue was that the Slayer Statute in force at the time of the Decedent’s death was modified in 2008, and the case would be decided by whichever version of the statute was deemed controlling.

The prior version of the statute (VA. CODE ANN. § 55-402 (2003); VA. CODE ANN. § 64.1-1) stated that neither the slayer nor any person “claiming through him” shall acquire property or receive benefits as a result of the death of the decedent. In 2008, the General Assembly amended the Slayer Statute (VA. CODE ANN. § 55-403), to provide that an heir who establishes kinship to the decedent by way of his kinship to the slayer shall be deemed to be claiming from the decedent and “not through the slayer.” The Slayer’s children argued that the later version of the statute controlled and that they should inherit the entire estate. The mother argued that the earlier version of the statute should control and that she was the sole heir.

The Court started by recognizing the basic principle that the retrospective application of law is disfavored and that a law should operate prospectively unless there was a contrary legislative intent. Moreover, it was well-established policy in Virginia that the law in existence at the time of the decedent’s death governed estate distribution. Therefore, the Court held that the former version of the Slayer Statute, the version in effect when the Decedent died in 2005, controlled the distribution of the estate. The Court concluded that the rightful heir was the Decedent’s mother.