IN THE MATTER OF THE ESTATE OF JOAN ARMSTRONG, DECEASED: JOHN R. ARMSTRONG
TERRY L. ARMSTRONG, EXECUTOR
COURT FROM WHICH APPEALED: JACKSON COUNTY CHANCERY COURT. DATE OF JUDGMENT: 02/12/2014. TRIAL JUDGE: HON. JAYE A. BRADLEY.
REVERSED AND REMANDED.
FOR APPELLANT: STACIE ELIZABETH ZORN.
FOR APPELLEE: E. FOLEY RANSON.
BEFORE RANDOLPH, P.J., KING AND COLEMAN, JJ. WALLER, C.J., DICKINSON, P.J., LAMAR, KITCHENS, CHANDLER, PIERCE, KING AND COLEMAN, JJ., CONCUR.
RANDOLPH, PRESIDING JUSTICE
[¶1] This is a case of first impression regarding the interpretation of Mississippi Code Section 91-5-33, known as the " Slayer Statute," which states that anyone who " wilfully cause[s] or procure[s]" the death of another shall not inherit from his or her victim. John R. Armstrong, a severely mentally ill man, killed Joan Armstrong, his eighty-year-old mother. This fact is not disputed by any party. The Circuit Court of Jackson County determined that John was not competent to stand trial for the murder of Joan, and John was committed to the state hospital at Whitfield, where he resides today. Based on the Slayer Statute, John's four siblings requested that the devise to John in their mother's will be declared void. The chancellor granted their motion, and John, through his court-appointed guardian ad litem, appeals the ruling. Finding that a hearing to determine John's mental status at the time of the murder is necessary prior to granting the motion, we reverse and remand for a hearing consistent with this opinion.
STATEMENT OF FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS BELOW
[¶2] On August 7, 2010, Joan Armstrong was contacted by several of her son's neighbors, who were worried about their children's safety, after they noticed John acting erratically. John had a long history of serious mental illness, having been treated since 1989. Joan picked up John at his apartment and brought him back to her condominium. Joan had invited some of her friends to come over to the condominium swimming pool. Worried that his mother was leaving him, John went upstairs and retrieved a crochet-covered brick, which he used to hit Joan repeatedly over the head. He then moved her body to the bathroom and repeatedly stabbed her. He informed law enforcement officers from the Ocean Springs Police Department (OSPD) that he was preparing her body to be buried by bleeding her.
[¶3] Joan's death certificate listed her cause of death as " contusion of brain with subdural and subarachnoid hemorrhage [due to] multiple blunt force injuries of head." Joan also sustained multiple stab wounds and rib fractures. Joan's death was listed as a homicide due to the multiple strikes to her head.
[¶4] John admitted to the OSPD that he had killed Joan. His confession was overheard by his sister-in-law, Lee. John was arrested and subsequently indicted for Joan's murder.
[¶5] The circuit court ordered that John receive a mental evaluation and treatment from the state hospital at Whitfield, to determine if he was competent to stand trial. Dr. Reb McMichael, Chief of Forensic Services at the Mississippi State Hospital, opined that John was not competent to stand trial. The circuit court then committed John to Whitfield, ordering that he remain at that facility until he was declared competent to stand trial. John continues to undergo treatment at Whitfield.
[¶6] Terry L. Armstrong, John's brother, filed a petition in the Chancery Court of Jackson County, Mississippi, to probate Joan's will. The will appointed Terry as executor. Joan left her estate equally to her five children. The petition listed the following children as Joan's sole heirs-at-law: Terry L. Armstrong, David Armstrong,
Jill Seiler, Gail Jones, and John Armstrong. Joan's will was admitted to probate, and letters testamentary were granted to Terry, as executor. The chancellor also entered an order establishing Joan's heirs-at-law as Terry Armstrong, David Armstrong, Jill Seiler, Gail Jones, and John Armstrong.
[¶7] Once the heirs-at-law were determined, Terry filed a Motion to Declare Devise Void as to John, based on the Slayer Statute. Terry requested that this motion not be heard until the pending criminal charges against John were finally resolved. Due to John's mental illness, Terry requested that a guardian ad litem be appointed. Terry also filed a Motion for Partial Distribution, acknowledging that significant time might pass before John's guilt was determined. Therefore, the assets of Joan's estate, exclusive of the portion assigned to John, should be distributed to the other four children. The chancellor entered an order distributing eighty percent of Joan's residuary estate equally to four of Joan's children and placing John's twenty percent in a supplemental needs trust.
[¶8] Stacie E. Zorn was appointed to represent John as his guardian ad litem. In response to the motion to declare the devise to John void, John argued that Terry had failed to prove he willfully or feloniously caused the death of Joan; the matter was not ripe for hearing because there had been no adjudication of his guilt in the criminal matter; and that, due to his mental incapacity, he lacked the requisite intent to commit a willful act; therefore, the Slayer Statute was not applicable.
[¶9] After the chancellor heard arguments on the motion, she entered an order declaring the devise to John void. The chancellor recognized that this was a case of first impression, as there had been no decision addressing whether a person determined to be mentally incompetent to stand trial could be considered to have " wilfully" caused the death of another. The chancellor determined that the meaning of " wilfully" should be interpreted within the civil context, and not the criminal context. ...