Riggs v. Palmer
22 N.E. 188 (1889)
Cooter and Ulen, 3rd Edition (www.cooter-ulen.com/cases)
[The following dispute arose between private citizens in the State of New York in the 1880s. At issue was the division of the estate of a Mr. Francis Palmer between his daughters, Mrs. Riggs and Mrs. Preston, and his grandson, Elmer Palmer. Francis Palmer had left a last will and testament that specified how his property was to be divided among those parties. Elmer Palmer wishes his grandfather’s wishes to be followed to the letter; Mrs. Riggs and Mrs. Preston want the court to amend their father’s will to exclude Elmer Palmer from inheriting any of their father’s property. Their reason for so requesting is that Elmer Palmer murdered his grandfather when he learned that Francis was planning to change his will so as to exclude Elmer from inheriting. This dispute presented a novel and, obviously, fascinating question of law: Can a murderer inherit from the person whom he has murdered?]

EARL, J. On the 13th day of August, 1880, Francis B. Palmer made his last will and testament, in which he gave small legacies to his two daughters, Mrs. Riggs and Mrs. Preston, the plaintiffs in this action, and the remainder of the estate to his grandson, the defendant Elmer E. Palmer, subject to the support of Susan Palmer, his mother, with a gift over to the two daughters, subject to the support of Mrs. Palmer in case Elmer should survive him and die under age, unmarried, and without any issue. The testator, at the date of his will, owned a farm, and considerable personal property. He was a widower, and thereafter, in March, 1882, he was married to Mrs. Bresee, with whom before his marriage, he entered into an antenuptial contract, in which it was agreed that in lieu of dower and all other claims upon his estate in case she survived him she should have her support upon his farm during her life, and such support was expressly charged upon the farm. At the date of the will, and subsequently to the death of the testator, Elmer lived with him as a member of his family, and at his death was 16 years old. He knew of the provisions made in his favor in the will, and, that he might prevent his grandfather from revoking such provisions, which he had manifested some intention to do, and to obtain the speedy enjoyment and immediate possession of his property, he willfully murdered him by poisoning him. He now claims the property, and the sole question for our determination is, can he have it?

The defendants say that the testator is dead; that his will was made in due form, and has been admitted to probate; and that therefore it must have effect according to the letter of the law. It is quite true that statutes regulating the making, proof, and effect of wills and the devolution of property, if literally construed, and if their force and effect can in no way and under no circumstances be controlled or modified, give this property to the murderer. The purpose of those statutes was to enable testators to dispose of their estates to the objects of their bounty at death, and to carry into effect their final wishes legally expressed; and in considering and giving effect to them this purpose must be kept in view. It was the intention of the law-makers that the donees in a will should have the property given to them. But it never could have been their intention that a donee who murdered the testator to make the will operative should have any benefit under it. If such a case had been present to their minds, and it had been supposed necessary to make some provision of law to meet it, it cannot be doubted that they would have provided for it. … The writers of laws do not always express their intention perfectly, but either exceed it or fall short of it, so that judges are to collect it from probable or rational conjectures only…

What could be more unreasonable than to suppose that it was the legislative intention in the general laws passed for the orderly, peaceable, and just devolution of property that they should have operation in favor of one who murdered his ancestor that he might speedily come into the possession of his estate? Such an intention is inconceivable. We need not, therefore, be much troubled by the general language contained in the laws. Besides, all laws, as well as all contracts, may be controlled in their operation and effect by general, fundamental maxims of the common law. No one shall be permitted to profit by his own fraud, or to take advantage of his own wrong, or to found any claim upon his own iniquity, or to acquire property by his own crime. These maxims are dictated by public policy, have their foundation in universal law administered in all civilized countries, and have nowhere been superseded by statutes. They were applied in the decision of the case of  Insurance Co. v. Armstrong, 117 U.S. 599, 6 Sup. Ct. Rep. 877. There it was held that the person who procured a policy upon the life of another, payable at his death, and then murdered the assured to make the policy payable, could not recover thereon ...

Here there was no certainty that this murderer would survive the testator, or that the testator would not change his will, and there was no certainty that he would get this property if nature was allowed to take its course. He therefore murdered the testator expressly to vest himself with an estate. Under such circumstances, what law, human or divine, will allow him to take the estate and enjoy the fruits of his crime? The will spoke and became operative at the death of the testator. He caused that death, and thus by his crime made it speak and have operation. Shall it speak and operate in his favor? If he had met the testator, and taken his property by force, he would have had no title to it. Shall he acquire title by murdering him? If he had gone to the testator’s house, and by force compelled him, or by fraud or undue influence had induced him, to will him to hold it. But can he give effect and operation to a will by murder, and yet take the property? To answer these questions in the affirmative it seems to me would be a reproach to the jurisprudence of our state, and an offense against public policy. Under the civil law, evolved from the general principles of natural law and justice by many generations of jurisconsults, philosophers, and statesmen, one cannot take property by inheritance or will from an ancestor or benefactor whom he has murdered. ...

My view of this case does not inflict upon Elmer any greater or other punishment for his crime than the law specifies. It takes from him no property, but simply holds that he shall not acquire property by his crime, and thus be rewarded for its commission.

Our attention is called to Owens v. Owens, 100 N. C. 240, 6 S. E. Rep. 794, as a case quite like this. There a wife had been convicted of being an accessory before the fact to the murder of her husband, and it was held that she was nevertheless entitled to dower. I am unwilling to assent to the doctrine of that case. The statutes provide dower for a wife who has the misfortune to survive her husband, and thus lose his support and protection. It is clear beyond their purpose to make provision for a wife who by her own crime makes herself a widow, and willfully and intentionally deprives herself of the support and protection of her husband. As she might have died before him, and thus never have been his widow, she cannot by her crime vest herself with an estate. The principle which lies at the bottom of the maxim volenti non fit injuria [“He who consents cannot receive an injury”] should be applied to such a case, and a widow should not, for the purpose of acquiring, as such, property rights, be permitted to allege a widowhood which she has wickedly and intentionally created.[1]

The facts found entitled the plaintiffs to the relief they seek. ... The judgment of the general term and that entered upon the report of the referee should therefore be reversed, and judgment should be entered as follows: That Elmer E. Palmer and the administrator be enjoined from using any of the personalty or real estate left by the testator for Elmer’s benefit; that the devise and bequest in the will to Elmer be declared ineffective to pass the title to him; that by reason of the crime of murder committed upon the grandfather he is deprived of any interest in the estate left by him; that the plaintiffs are the true owners of the real and personal estate left by the testator, subject to the charge in favor of Elmer’s mother and the widow of the testator, under the antenuptial agreement, and that the plaintiffs have costs in all the courts against Elmer. …
GRAY, J., (dissenting.) This appeal presents an extraordinary state of facts, and the case, in respect of them, I believe, is without precedent in this state. The respondent, a lad of 16 years of age, being aware of the provisions in his grandfather’s will, which constituted him the residuary legatee of the testator’s estate, caused his death by poison, in 1882. For this crime he was tried, and was convicted of murder in the second degree, and at the time of the commencement of this action he was serving out his sentence in the state reformatory. This action was brought by two of the children of the testator for the purpose of having those provisions of the will in the respondent’s favor canceled and annulled. The appellants’ argument for a reversal of the judgment, which dismissed their complaint, is that the respondent unlawfully prevented a revocation of the existing will, or a new will from being made, by his crime: and that he terminated the enjoyment by the testator of his property, and effected his own succession to it, by the same crime. They say that to permit the respondent to take the property willed to him would be to permit him to take advantage of his own wrong. To sustain their position the appellants’ counsel has submitted an able and elaborate brief, and, if I believed that the decision of the question could be effected by considerations of an equitable nature, I should not hesitate to assent to views which commend themselves to the conscience. But the matter does not lie within the domain of conscience. We are bound by the rigid rules of law, which have been established by the legislature, and within the limits of which the determination of this question is confined. The question we are dealing with is whether a testamentary disposition can be altered, or a will revoked, after the testator’s death, through an appeal to the courts, when the legislature has by its enactments prescribed exactly when and how wills may be made, altered, and revoked, and apparently, as it seems to me, when they have been fully complied with, has left no room for the exercise of an equitable jurisdiction by courts over such matters. Modern jurisprudence, in recognizing the right of the individual, under more or less restrictions, to dispose of his property after his death, subjects it to legislative control, both as to extent and as to mode of exercise. Complete freedom of testamentary disposition of one’s property has not been and is not the universal rule, as we see from the provisions of the Napoleonic Code, from the systems of jurisprudence in countries which are modeled upon the Roman law, and from the statutes of many of our states. To the statutory restraints which are imposed upon the disposition of one’s property by will are added strict and systematic statutory rules for the execution, alteration, and revocation of the will, which must be, at least substantially, if not exactly, followed to insure validity and performance. The reason for the establishment of such rules, we may naturally assume, consists in the purpose to create those safeguards about these grave and important acts which experience has demonstrated to be the wisest and surest. That freedom which is permitted to be exercised in the testamentary disposition of one’s estate by the laws of the state is subject to its being exercised in conformity with the regulations of the statutes. The capacity and the power of the individual to dispose of his property after death, and the mode by which that power can be exercised, are matters of which the legislature has assumed the entire control, and has undertaken to regulate with comprehensive particularity.

The appellants’ argument is not helped by reference to those rules of the civil law, or to those laws of other governments, by which the heir, or legatee, is excluded from benefit under the testament if he has been convicted of killing, or attempting to kill, the testator. In the absence of such legislation here, the courts are now empowered to institute such a system of remedial justice. The deprivation of the heir of his testamentary succession by the Roman law, when guilty of such a crime, plainly was intended to be in the nature of a punishment imposed upon him ...

The statutes of this state have prescribed various ways in which a will may be altered or revoked; but the very provision defining the modes of alteration and revocation implies a prohibition of alteration or revocation in any other way. The words of the section of the statute are: “No will in writing, except in the cases hereinafter mentioned, nor any part thereof, shall be revoked or altered otherwise,” etc. Where, therefore, none of the cases mentioned are met by the facts, and the revocation is not in the way described in the section, the will of the testator is unalterable. I think that a valid will must continue as will always, unless revoked in the manner provided by the statutes. Mere intention to revoke a will does not have the effect of revocation. The finding of fact of the referee that presumably the testator would have altered his will had he known of his grandson’s murderous intent cannot affect the question. We may concede it to the fullest extent; but still the cardinal objection is undisposed of,  that the making and the revocation of a will are purely matters of statutory regulation, by which the court is bound in the determination of questions relating to these acts. ...

I cannot find any support for the argument that the respondent’s succession to the property should be avoided because of his criminal act, when the laws are silent. Public policy does not demand it; for the demands of public policy are satisfied by the proper execution of the laws and the punishment of the crime. ... Practically the court is asked to make another will for the testator. The laws do not warrant this judicial action, and mere presumption would not be strong enough to sustain it. But, more than this, to concede the appellants’ views would involve the imposition of an additional punishment or penalty upon the respondent. What power or warrant have the courts to add to the respondent’s penalties by depriving him of property? The law has punished him for his crime, and we may not say that it was an insufficient punishment. In the trial and punishment of the respondent the law has vindicated itself for the outrage which he committed, and further judicial utterance upon the subject of punishment or deprivation of rights is barred. We may not, in the language of the court in People v. Thornton, 25 Hun, 456, “enhance the pains, penalties, and forfeitures provided by law for the punishment of crime.” The judgment should be affirmed, with costs.

[1] The judge’s point reminds us of the story of the young man who killed his parents and at his murder trial begged for mercy on the ground that he was an orphan.

Questions and Notes:

1.  Who are the plaintiffs in Riggs v. Palmer? What are they asking the court to do?

You will often find that there are multiple plaintiffs and multiple defendants and yet the case is entitled in such a way as for you to believe that there was only one plaintiff and one defendant. In fact, that was the case here. Why is there this disparity between who the parties really were and what the title of the case is? The answer is that this is purely a matter of convenience. The full title of the case you have just read is Riggs et al. v. Palmer et al., where et al. means, in Latin, “and other people.” It is easier to remember this case as simply Riggs or as Palmer or even as Riggs v. Palmer than to add the full title. You will find that famous cases are often referred to in an abbreviated form (e.g., Riggs) rather than by their full name.

2.  Is there a New York statute involved in this dispute? From the context of the opinions, what does that statute say about the resolution of the current dispute? Did the legislators who wrote that statute anticipate the sort of situation that we see here? Why not?

Oliver Wendell Holmes characterized much of what common law judges do in the course of making law as “interstitial legislating.” Southern Pacific Co. v. Jensen, 2444 U.S. 205, 221 (1917) (dissenting opinion). What he meant was that the common law judges were filling in the gaps in the work undertaken by legislators. Is that a fair characterization of what the majority is doing in this case?

3.  What happened in the court below? Who won? Who appealed that judgment?

4.  How does the majority opinion seek to support its conclusion? Does it use analogy? Give two examples of analogies used by Justice Earl. Does the majority cite other cases as support? Are those other cases binding precedent or merely persuasive? Why is Insurance Co. v. Armstrong, 117 U.S. 599, a United States Supreme Court opinion, not binding authority? What about the North Carolina case, Owens v. Owens, 100 N.C. 240?

5.  What are the central reasons given by the majority for voiding the will?

An important argument made in the majority opinion is that if the testator (Francis Palmer) had thought of the possibility that his grandson (or anyone else) would kill him to prevent him changing his will so as to disinherit them, then the testator would have explicitly excluded a murdering heir. How do we know that the testator would have excluded Elmer? It’s a guess, but it’s a highly plausible guess. Experience, common sense, reflection—all those things and more suggest that Francis Palmer, like the vast majority of human beings, would not have wanted Elmer to profit from murdering his grandfather. (Notice that exactly the same argument could be made about the New York state legislature and its failure to specify what should be done in the case of a murdering heir. If the legislators had thought of this possibility, then they would have excluded a murdering heir.)

6.  What is the holding in this case?

You should know just a little about wills in order to appreciate Justice Gray’s dissent. For centuries in the common-law world there has been an extremely strong general rule to honor the explicit wishes of the testator in his last will and testament. Thus, even where there might be a mistake in the will, the judges have generally enforced the terms anyway. Suppose, for instance, that Henderson’s last will and testament says, “I leave $100,000 in cash to the Sam Charles who lives on Woodhaven in Amherst, NY.” Henderson dies. Suppose that it is then discovered that Henderson really meant to leave the $100,000 to a Sam Charles who lives on Main St. in Amherst. Somehow, Henderson or his attorney made a mistake in writing down the address. Perhaps there are two Sam Charles listed in the phone book and in writing down the address, Henderson or his attorney meant to indicate the one on Main St. but wrote down the one on Woodhaven instead. Can the court correct this mistake and give the $100,000 to the real Sam Charles? In general, no. The testator is gone, and it is often impossible after the fact to be sure that this really was a mistake. Courts have made the determination that, all things considered, it is better to honor the explicit wishes of the decedent rather than to entertain speculation about what he or she really intended.

There are, of course, circumstances in which it is impossible to honor the testator’s wishes. Suppose, in the previous paragraph, that there was no one named Sam Charles on Woodhaven. What is to be done? Generally speaking, the court will try to ascertain in whatever way it can what the testator’s wishes were and then come as close to complying with those wishes as it is possible to do. For example, suppose there is a Charles Sams who lives on Woodhaven. That’s easy; the testator simply scrambled the names. But what if there is no Sam Charles and no Woodhaven? Finding an appropriate means of coming close to Henderson’s wishes in those circumstances is a more difficult matter.

This background should help you to see that Justice Gray’s position is not without merit. He says, in essence, that the New York Statute is silent on what to do in the situation before the court and that, therefore, the court should follow the testator’s explicit wishes. That is, Justice Gray argues for doing exactly what the will says to do. This view is in line with the strong presumption of the common law that we noted above. We’ll explore the implications of Justice Gray’s position in the following questions.

7.  What precisely does Justice Gray think the appropriate solution to this dispute is?

8.  How does he justify this position? Does he mention the strong presumption in favor of honoring a testator’s explicit wishes? How does he deal with the fact  that the New York State legislature’s statute does not cover this situation? Does he rely on other authority to support his position? Whom does he cite? How does he make use of analogous reasoning in his dissenting opinion?

9.  Suppose that Justice Gray, instead of being in the minority, had carried the day so that the law in New York was that a murderer could inherit. What are some of the consequences of this decision? Would you expect the number of testators who are murdered by prospective inheritors to increase? Would testators re-write their wills so as to explicitly exclude a murdering heir? What might the state legislature do in its next session? Would it amend the statute to exclude a murderer from inheritance?

An interesting aspect of the difference between the majority and minority opinions is the difference between a theory of (common law) judicial activism and restraint. Justice Earl and his colleagues felt that the gap in the New York statute should be filled. It was an oversight not to have thought of the possibility of a murdering heir, and the justices see no harm and a great deal of virtue in correcting that oversight. Justice Gray, on the other hand, can be interpreted as saying that this is not the court’s business. If the legislature had wanted to exclude murdering heirs, then they should have said so explicitly. Moreover, he can be interpreted as saying, “If it really was an oversight not to exclude murdering heirs under the statute, then the legislature, not the court, can take the appropriate corrective action at the earliest opportunity.” These two views—one of common-law judges actively filling in the gaps in the law, the other of judges deferring to the legislature—are characteristic of the debate between the civil law and common law countries and of a continuing debate within the common law countries about the appropriate role of judges and legislatures.

10.  Suppose that you are member of a state legislature in 1890. Word of the majority opinion in Riggs reaches you and you decide that you should amend your state’s statute governing inheritance to exclude murdering heirs. Consider how you would deal with the following situations:

None of these is particularly easy to answer. Perhaps now you realize why common-law judges confine themselves to the exact facts presented to them rather than imagining all the possibilities.