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It's a timeworn plot twist in movies: A wealthy family patriarch is killed and the killer turns out to be the spouse, offspring or business partner -- who just happens to be the beneficiary of the departed's enormous life insurance policy!

And if you watch true-crime TV shows, you know this scheme plays out in real life.

Consider:

  • An Indiana vacuum cleaner salesman was killed by a gunshot to the head in 2003 and his wife, the beneficiary of two life insurance policies worth a total of $1 million, was convicted in 2009 in connection with his death.
  • In 2010, a Missouri woman went to prison after hiring two men to kill her husband so she could collect his life insurance benefits.
  • In Washington state, a man was found guilty in 2010 of second-degree murder in the 2003 drowning death of his 3-year-old stepdaughter in what authorities said was an effort to collect a $200,000 life insurance benefit he had taken out on the girl.

Although murder-for-life-insurance plots in movies typically end with the culprit being marched off to prison, real-life incidents are not often black and white. Life insurance beneficiaries can remain suspects in killings for years without collecting death benefits, and life insurance companies, left wondering who should get the payout, often wind up seeking answers in court.

'Slayer statutes'

Killing someone for life insurance money is not only a heinous criminal act, it's insurance fraud. Jack Dolan of the American Council of Life Insurers, an industry trade group, says that "as a general rule" anyone who is convicted in court or remains under investigation for killing someone in order to collect a life insurance benefit will not receive the payout.

"The fact that a beneficiary is not charged with a crime or is not convicted in a criminal proceeding of wrongfully killing the insured does not mean that the beneficiary is automatically entitled to receive the policy proceeds," Dolan says.

Many states, such as Connecticut, have specific "slayer statutes" that prevent life insurance beneficiaries from receiving payouts if they "intentionally caused" the insured's death. Some of these states also allow the court to bar payouts if the beneficiary isn't convicted of murder or manslaughter but may have been involved in the insured's demise, such as by hiring someone to kill the insured. The type of conduct that prevents a beneficiary from receiving a death benefit varies from state to state.

Slayer statutes have been enacted in 42 states, and, according to legal experts in Connecticut, some states' statutes allow a court to consider proof other than a criminal conviction to show that a person should not receive their victim's life insurance death benefits. Eleven of those states will allow an "interested person" to ask a court to determine whether a beneficiary who hasn't been convicted of anything could nevertheless be found "criminally accountable" either by "clear and convincing" evidence or by "a preponderance of evidence." So, in these states a beneficiary could avoid a murder rap but still lose out on the death benefit.

Wrongdoing is not always obvious

According to Bill Long, an author and legal scholar in Oregon, states that don't have specific "slayer statutes" rely on common law -- or legal precedents -- to bar a person who "feloniously and intentionally" killed someone from collecting the insurance loot.

But Long notes that there are cases in which a life insurance beneficiary did not always have the insured's best interests in mind and was still able to collect on a life insurance policy.