Today’s episode of Grimm (“Happily Ever Aftermath“) involves a murder apparently motivated by money, specifically an inheritance. But, as any law student who has taken a trusts & estates course can tell you, the devil is in the details. Spoilers ahead!
I. The Set-Up
The episode is a twist on the story of Cinderella. In this case, Lucinda has married her handsome (and wealthy) prince, who then proceeds to lose it all to a Ponzi scheme. He appeals to Lucinda’s stepmother for money, who turns him down. Shortly afterward, the stepmother is found murdered. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the stepmother’s will gives everything to her own daughters and nothing to Lucinda. But soon one of the stepsisters is also killed, and we are told that, if both stepsisters die then Lucinda will inherit everything, “will or no will.”
II. “Will or no will”
This is an interesting statement from Nick’s partner Hank, and it suggests that Lucinda would inherit under both the will and under the law of intestate succession (i.e. how inheritance is decided when there is no will), if both stepsisters are dead. We’ll take a look at both possibilities.
It’s entirely possible that the stepmother’s will names Lucinda as an heir if both of her daughters are deceased. But of course the stepsisters died after their mother, so shouldn’t we look to the stepsisters’ own wills (or to the law of intestate succession)? Not necessarily.
Except as provided in ORS 112.586, if the title to property … depends upon whether a specified person survives the death of another person, the specified person shall be deemed to have died before the other person unless it is established by clear and convincing evidence that the specified person survived the other person by at least 120 hours.
The meaning or importance of this rule may not be entirely obvious at first glance. It may help to imagine a hypothetical provision in the stepmother’s will, something like “If Daughter A survives me, then she shall inherit one half of my estate.” Under the USDA, the daughter must survive the stepmother by at least 120 hours or else she will be regarded as having died before her mother, so her half of the estate would never pass to her.
Now imagine the will has a clause like “If neither Daughter A nor Daughter B survives me, but Lucinda survives me, then she shall inherit my estate.” If Daughter A and B are dead within 120 hours of the stepmother’s death, then Lucinda could still inherit directly from the stepmother, barring any exceptions in ORS 112.586. My recollection is a little fuzzy, but I think everything in the episode happens quickly enough that it could all fit within 120 hours.
It seems unlikely that the stepmother would give everything to Lucinda even if both of her daughters were dead, but I suppose it’s possible. Their relationship was certainly frosty but not outright hostile.
B. “or no will”
Here, though, the straightforward answer is “no.” The general rule is that non-adopted stepchildren cannot inherit from their stepparents by intestate succession. In Oregon, the relevant law is ORS 112.045:
The part of the net intestate estate not passing to the surviving spouse shall pass:
(1) To the issue of the decedent. If the issue are all of the same degree of kinship to the decedent, they shall take equally, but if of unequal degree, then those of more remote degrees take by representation.
“Issue” is defined in ORS 111.005(22) as “adopted children and their issue and, when used to refer to persons who take by intestate succession, includes all lineal descendants, except those who are the lineal descendants of living lineal descendants.” Stepchildren are not lineal descendants, and there’s no other provision in the Oregon intestate succession rules that Lucinda would fall under.
Notably, California has a rare (but very, very narrow) exception in Cal. Probate Code § 6454, but Oregon doesn’t have a similar provision and the California rule likely wouldn’t apply in this case anyway.
There is a catch, though. Note that I said “non-adopted stepchildren.” It’s possible that the stepmother adopted Lucinda, either before or after Lucinda’s father’s death. Since her father died while Lucinda was still a minor, it’s entirely possible that the stepmother wouldn’t receive custody unless Lucinda was adopted. And under ORS 112.175, adopted children are generally treated just like natural children for purposes of intestate succession. So in that case Lucinda would inherit if there were no will.
This could also matter if there was a will. If the will failed to state who inherited if both natural daughters were deceased (unlikely, but possible), then intestate succession would step in, and Lucinda would be next in line.
The “will or no will” bit strained credulity, but I’m willing to let it slide, since it could technically be true.
On another note, in another recent episode there was a reasonable reference to exigent circumstances before Nick and Hank barged into a house without a warrant. It’s nice to see the show’s writers address that all-too-common issue on the show. Who knows, maybe they read this site?