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New York Life Ins. Co. v. Morales

December 10, 2007

NEW YORK LIFE INS. CO., PLAINTIFF,
v.
ILDEFONSO MORALES, ALICIA A. RUIZ DE MORALES, AND JUAN JAVIER LOPEZ, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. Rudi M. Brewster United States Senior District Judge

ORDER DENYING DEFENDANTS' CROSS MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

[Docket Nos. 26 & 44]

After Plaintiff New York Life Insurance Co. was discharged from this interpleader action, the remaining Defendants filed cross motions for summary judgment to determine who is entitled to the benefits of a life insurance policy. The Court convened several hearings and allowed the parties to file supplemental briefs. The Court incorporates its remarks from the November 20, 2007 hearing into this written Order and denies both motions. The parties were instructed to consult with Magistrate Judge Major regarding any discovery matters. Thereafter, the case shall be set for a Pretrial Conference and a Bench Trial.

Background

The insured Maria F. Lopez purchased a $100,000 life insurance policy from Plaintiff New York Life and named her husband, Defendant Juan Javier Lopez, as the beneficiary.

She died on February 19, 1998 in Tijuana, Mexico. Her parents, Defendants Ildefonso and Alicia Ruiz Morales, contend that Juan Lopez is not entitled to benefit from the insurance policy because he killed her. They rely on California's "Slayer Statute." Juan Lopez was tried and convicted in a Mexican court for homicide in 2003; however, he contends that he is innocent.

Discussion

A. California's "Slayer Statute"

Since 1905, California Probate Code's "Slayer Statute" has barred a killer from collecting money from his victim's estate. The current version of the statute provides that "[a] named beneficiary of a . . . life insurance policy . . . who feloniously and intentionally kills the . . . person upon whose life the policy is issued is not entitled to any benefit under the . . . policy . . . , and it becomes payable as though the killer had predeceased the decedent." Cal. Prob. Code § 252.

1. Subsection (a): When the Final Judgment is "Conclusive" Evidence

The first subsection of California's "Slayer Statute" states that "[a] final judgment of conviction of felonious and intentional killing is conclusive for purposes of this part." Cal. Prob. Code 254(a). If there is a final criminal conviction, the killer is not entitled to present any evidence in the probate proceedings to dispute the finding of intentional homicide. Wilson v. Wilson, 78 Cal.App.3d 226 (1978) (interpreting former § 258); McGowan v. Herman, 35 Cal.App.3d 611 (1973) (under former § 258: "It is reasonable to assume that the Legislature meant to avoid a redetermination in civil proceedings of issues that had been fully litigated in prior criminal proceedings.").

Although the parents submitted evidence of the husband's final conviction, those criminal proceedings occurred in Mexico. In 1978, the Ninth Circuit held that § 254(a) did not apply to a foreign conviction so as to render it "conclusive" evidence. Haung Tang v. Aetna Life Ins. Co., 523 F.2d 811 (9th Cir. 1975).*fn1

2. Subsection (b): Preponderance of Evidence Standard

Because subsection (a) does not apply to Mexican judgment of conviction in this case, the Court turns to subsection (b). In 1984, some years after the Huang Tang decision, and in accordance with the Uniform Probate Code, California added a new subsection to the "Slayer Statute" that allows courts to determine whether the applicant is barred from inheriting a victim's insurance proceeds in circumstances ...


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