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Home > Blog > District Court Holds Montana’s Slayer Statute is Not Preempted by ERISA

District Court Holds Montana’s Slayer Statute is Not Preempted by ERISA

In Hartford Life Insurance Company v. LeCou, et al., No. CV 19-17-BLG-SPW, 2021 WL 1312516 (D. Mont. Apr. 8, 2021), the US District Court for the District of Montana considered whether the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”) preempts the Montana Code Annotated § 72-2-813, which states that an individual who “feloniously and intentionally kills the decedent forfeits all benefits under this chapter [Chapter 2 UPC—Intestacy, Wills, and Donative Transfers] with respect to the decedent’s estate.” Mont. Code Ann. § 72-2-813 (2).

In this case, Cross-Claim Defendant Robert LeCou was convicted of deliberate homicide for killing his wife and two of her siblings. His conviction was confirmed by the Montana Supreme Court and he did not seek post-trial relief or appeal his conviction to the U.S. Supreme Court within the necessary timeframe. Gary Hill, personal representative of LeCou’s wife’s estate, moved for summary judgment requesting that her ERISA plan benefits be awarded to her estate and not to LeCou.

The sole issue for the court was whether the wife’s qualifying plan benefits pass to her estate under Montana’s slayer statute. It would not pass to her estate if the Montana statute were preempted by ERISA. The court noted that this issue has not been addressed by Montana’s Supreme Court or the 9th Circuit. It also noted, however, that the U.S. Supreme Court, in Egelhoff v. Egelhoff, 532 U.S. 141, 152 (2001), explained that the underlying principle of slayer statutes and their uniformity across jurisdictions, leaned toward a finding that ERISA does not preempt such laws. Further, the Seventh Circuit in Laborers’ Pension Fund v. Miscevic, 880 F.3d 927, 934 (7th Cir. 2018) determined that Congress did not intend to supplant slayer statutes with ERISA because such statutes are a well-established legal principle that long-predates ERISA. “Congress could not have intended ERISA to allow one spouse to recover benefits after intentionally killing the other spouse.” Id. (citing Conn. Gen. Life Ins. Co. v. Riner, 351 F. Supp. 2d 492, 497 (W.D. Va. 2005). Consistent with those decisions, the court found that ERISA does not preempt Montana Code Annotated § 72-2-813 (2). The court granted Hill’s motion for summary judgment.

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