A Grimm Case of Intestate Succession

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.

A. “Will”

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.

Oregon has adopted a version of the Uniform Simultaneous Death Act as ORS 112.570 to 112.590.  The relevant part is ORS 112.572:

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.

III. Conclusion

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?

11 responses to “A Grimm Case of Intestate Succession

  1. As I recall, the stepmother’s money originally came from her marriage to Lucinda’s father. Is it possible there was some provision in his will that affected where the money would go after the stepmother’s death?

    • I don’t think that any of the inheritance was still being directed by the father’s will because the show speaks in terms of the stepmother leaving everything to the stepsisters. The show basically states that the father foolishly left everything to the stepmother outright because he was a poor judge of character. However, there are ways that the father could have insured that Lucinda was cared for.

      It’s possible that the father’s will could have left the stepmother with only a life estate in certain things, such as the family home or other property. So the will could say something like “I leave the house to my wife, for life, and then to Lucinda.” In that case, the stepmother doesn’t actually own the house outright but rather only has a life estate interest. Since you can’t give someone more than you own, the stepmother couldn’t give the house to her own daughters; when she died her interest would be terminated and ownership would go to Lucinda.

      However, life estates are generally only used for tangible property, typically real property (i.e. houses and land).

      It’s also possible that everything was held in a trust, possibly one created by the father’s will (i.e. a testamentary trust). Trusts are very versatile, and there are lots of ways it could make sure that Lucinda was cared for. But again, in that case it wouldn’t matter what the stepmother’s will said and there would have been no need to kill off the stepsisters.

      • Ah, but what if the father’s will left the stepmother a defeasible fee, subject to her dying with issue? Combined with the simultaneous death provision, that might do the trick: “My entire estate to my dear wife X and her heirs in fee simple, but if X dies without issue, then to Lucinda.”

      • That could work, and it makes more sense than the life estate version that I proposed. I still think it’s a little out of character, given what we know about the father, but complete consistency is probably a little too much to hope for from Grimm anyway.

  2. 1: my first thought was along the lines of Naomi’s; maybe the father made some kind of provision, or the money really belonged to some kind of foundation that would revert to Lucinda, or something.

    2: my second thought, of course, was that Hank, not being too keen on this kind of detail, could simply be wrong. Maybe he was told Lucinda would inherit, and he added the “will or no will” part himself to make it sound better.

    3: but now after reading the article, what sounds more likely is that (a) she had indeed been adopted, since otherwise there would be the question of custody; I’d imagine her father made the stepmother adopt her before he died, otherwise she would probably be glad to be rid of the troublesome girl. Or maybe she did it to avoid scandal.

    4: and quite possibly “will or no will” is referring to the fact that the will hasn’t been even opened yet, but the stepmother doesn’t have any better candidates, and even if she did leave it all to anyone else, Lucinda could probably contest it if she’s really adopted.

    5: on the other hand, it’s quite strong wording… it could mean what I just said, but it’s still not out of the question that my first theory is what was meant, that maybe the father’s money was actually left for the 3 girls and the stepmother was just the, what’s the legal term, administrator? Although since all 3 girls seem to be of age, that would be strange.

    And addendum: when I heard “exigent circumstances” last week I LOLed and said, “someone’s been reading Law and the Multiverse!”

  3. Christopher L. Bennett

    I seem to recall some early episodes of this show playing quite fast and loose with what constituted a legal entry or search by police.

  4. I think most states, whether by statute or by the common law maxim that a wrongdoer not gain from his wrongdoing, disqualify killers from inheriting as a result of their acts. Depending on how the statute is written, there may have to be a criminal conviction to disqualify the prince. OTOH, in this case the killer isn’t aiming to inherit on his own behalf. I don’t think the statutes would generally disqualify Lucinda, especially as she may know nothing about the murders. But if Lucinda were to inherit the estate and then the prince were to turn on her, then–if he were convicted of the crime–he would not take.

    • In this case it’s Lucinda who did the killing (and the prince didn’t know about it), so what you said is accurate, just reverse the prince and Lucinda.

  5. Todd Gardiner

    Could you correct the spelling of “Interstate” in the blog post title, please?

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