What Happens When People Are Murdered For Life Insurance Money?

Ryan Fan

Author Kouri Richins wrote a children’s book about grief following the tragic death of her husband, appearing on a local TV and radio stations to promote the book and let people know she hoped it would help her three children process the loss of their father.

“It’s comforting for them that they’re not living this life alone. Dad is still here, but in a different way,” Richins said.

Richins is now being charged with first-degree aggravated murder after allegedly killing her husband by giving him a lethal dose of fentanyl. Prior to allegedly killing her husband, her husband removed her as a beneficiary from his will and his life insurance policy, but she tried to change it back to making her the sole beneficiary.

Richins had taken out over $2 million in life insurance on her husband. Court documents show her husband told a friend he thought his wife was trying to kill him when he got sick eating a meal she prepared for Valentine’s Day. The autopsy and toxicology findings show her husband died of five times the lethal dosage of fentanyl.

Similarly, in 2018, Portland novelist who wrote an essay titled “How to Murder Your Husband” was charged with killing her husband. The novelist, Nancy Crampton Brophy, was convicted last year of second-degree murder. According to prosecutors, Brophy’s motive was her husband’s generous life insurance policy and money problems the couple had been struggling through.

Besides the unfortunate foreshadowing, A common thread in these bizarre cases of people killing their spouses is that they were both partially motivated by their spouses’ life insurance policies. I always knew some people were, well, willing to go to extreme lengths when under financial duress, but I started to wonder why people kill their “loved ones” for profit.

Plus, as a law student, I wondered what recourse is there to make sure the beneficiaries who intended to kill the insured don’t get the money.

I found several high-profile cases in the past half-century that established our legal precedent preventing beneficiaries who conspire to murder the insured from getting money, and making insurance companies liable when they know about a plot to kill the insured and do nothing about it.

Common issues in life insurance fraud

Unfortunately, people murdering their spouses and other “loved ones” for life insurance money is nothing new. This is especially true in an age where people can take out life insurance policies on others and list themselves as beneficiaries, but this usually requires the consent of the party being insured.

According to Louise Tanner and Ben Kingree at the Tort & Insurance Law Journal, sometimes a life insurance policy can have the “unintended effect of tempting a murderous beneficiary to kill the insured,” and underwriters of life insurance policies have the responsibility to stop any harm that might come to the insured by not issuing or canceling a life insurance policy.

Insurers can be held liable for failing to protect the insured through tort action, especially if their issuance or noncancellation puts the insured at harm from their possible beneficiary.

The history of life insurance and murder

According to Cornelius Walford, a 19th-century English writer on insurance, the earliest known life insurance policy was created on June 18, 1583, in the event of the death of William Gibbons. It was a 12-month policy at a premium of 8%. Gibbons did die on May 29, 1584, and the underwriters of the insurance policy tried to not pay it by claiming that if every month was 28 days, then Gibbons’s death was 12 months after the policy began. Two judges at the Court of Admiralty demanded in 1587 that the underwriters pay the policy they agreed to.

Still, it seems somewhat strange that William Gibbons died less than a month before the policy ended. But I don’t want to speculate too much because Gibbons could have just been in poor health.

Tanner and Kingree mention the high-profile death of Victor Nullthe inventor of the rotary engine. A 1972 New York Times article notes that Null was killed for $2.25 million life insurance policy by his business partners. Null had a 50% interest in their mutual company.

Ronald and James Calvert, who gave Null financial support for his invention, owned 43% of the company. In exchange for financial support, the Calverts and Null agreed to take on a life insurance policy where James Calvert would be the beneficiary of $500,000 in the event of Null’s death. The Calverts, however, pursued a $2 million accident policy through the New England Mutual Life Insurance Company.

Null was found dead shortly after this policy was bound, shot four times in the head.

Eventually, Null’s wife fired two lawsuits against New England Mutual Life Insurance Company for damages, both of which were unsuccessful. However, she did succeed in getting the court to find the life insurance policies void. The Calverts were not convicted of murdering Null, but they were convicted of conspiracy to defraud insurance companies, mail fraud, and wire fraud.

According to Peter Nash Swisher at the Drake Law Review, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals tackled an argument from Null’s wife that the insurance agent of New England Mutual Life knew about the Calverts’ alleged plan to kill Null and may have even assisted the Calverts in doing so.

Today, in the life insurance rule, the Null murder inspired the “Null rule,” where life insurance policies become void if they were made with the intent to kill the insured.

Another case in the Eighth Circuit involved the death of a woman named May Wilson in 1982. A beneficiary tried to bring action against two life insurance companies to collect $450,000, but the two insurers denied payment, alleging that Wilson’s half-brother, Leonard Richards, schemed to have his sister killed for life insurance money. The case actually only involved three of the 36 accidental death insurance policies on the life of May Wilson — all 36 totaled to be $3.5 million.

According to the Court, Wilson had a master’s in nursing administration and was a major in the Air Force. She became a chief nurse at an Air Force hospital in the Philippines, but she had to leave military service in 1968 due to health problems and was put on disability. Her physical and mental health deteriorated substantially after leaving the military, with evidence of multiple suicide attempts and hospitalizations. She was diagnosed with clinical depression, depressive psychosis, and other mental illnesses.

Richards, on the other hand, was an ordained minister and also described himself as a “management consultant.” Richards and Wilson were close enough that Richard was the beneficiary of hospital income protection insurance, which pays money every day someone is hospitalized. Since Wilson was hospitalized often, Richards and his trusts collected a substantial amount of money, including $700,000 when Wilson was hospitalized in Costa Rica and Mexico over the summer.

He then established numerous trusts and charities as beneficiaries of accidental death and dismembership insurance policies after these hospital income protection insurance plans were contested. One of these charities, Cerro Gordo Charity, had only Richards and his attorney as voting members.

Wilson was found killed in 1982 of two stab wounds in the basement of one of Richards’s companies. The medical examiner testified that the body was moved and the scene had been tampered with to make it look like a sexual assault. Once Wilson died, Cerro Gordo attempted to collect on three accidental death policies on her life.

According to Tanner and Kingree, the jury of the district court returned a special verdict that Richards intentionally killed Wilson, and that Cerro Gordo’s claims were void. The Eighth Circuit affirmed this ruling, agreeing that Richards pursued the life insurance policies with the intent to commit fraud and murder Wilson, especially since Richards’s psychiatrist testified that Richards made numerous “veiled remarks” about killing Wilson.

Beyond the justice of not being paid as the beneficiary of life insurance claims, the evidence of Richards’s statements and behavior in his role in the death of Wilson seems problematic. Eventually, Richards was convicted in 1989 of murder — but not for killing Wilson. Richards was convicted of killing his attorney, Robert Stratton, who threatened to report his financial schemes to the IRS. He received a life sentence. In 1994, Richards was found guilty of the murder of May Wilson.

Wilson is alive and still in prison. After his initial murder conviction for Stratton, he had run for office twice. He ran for office against Amy Klobuchar for Minnesota senator in 2018 while in jail. The convicted double murderer somehow received 3,552 votes (0.6%).

In another egregious case in Florida, a man named Jim Lopez found out his wife obtained multiple life insurance policies on him in 1977 (disguising them as health insurance coverage). He didn’t know until he overheard his brother-in-law and his wife talking about a plot to kill Lopez. Lopez immediately called his insurance agent asking to have his life insurance canceled.

The life insurance company failed to investigate the complaints and also did not cancel the life insurance policy. Several months later, Lopez’s wife and brother-in-law kidnapped him and tried to kill him by forcing whiskey down his throat while his hands were bound behind his back. Lopez was saved by the deputy sheriff being at the right place at the right time, and was rescued before death.

Lopez then sued the life insurance policy for negligently issuing the policy without investigating the plot or the financial circumstances of the family. The trial court, unfortunately, granted a motion to dismiss for Lopez's initial claim, but he appealed the decision.

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the life insurance company had sufficient notice that there was a plot of murder against Lopez, and that the life insurance company had a duty to not issue the policy if it knew of a plot on Lopez’s life, especially without his knowledge or consent. The appeals court also disagreed with the company’s claim that the criminal act was not reasonably foreseeable since they were informed of alleged criminal intent.

Lopez is likely one case (among many) that requires your consent when someone wants to take a life insurance policy out on you — the Fourth Circuit notes that there was no statute or case law addressing consent of the insured before another beneficiary could have an “insurable interest in the insured’s life.”

Thus, the life insurance company not only had a duty to cancel the policy but a duty to eliminate a motive for murdering the insured. At the very least, based on the outcome of Null, insurers should not pay out a life insurance claim to people who conspired to kill the insured since such claims are unenforceable.

Takeaways

I, like many people, know how it feels to be under financial duress and struggle with money. While a lot of people can struggle with money, killing someone or scheming to kill someone for life insurance money is clearly motivated by greed and a lot of it. I think it’s important to note people who kill or conspire to kill for millions of dollars in life insurance payout aren’t purely evil, but have very human (although clearly very illegal and unethical) motives.

These are just cases where it was proven that the beneficiaries had murderous intent, tried to kill the insured, or actually killed the insured. In all, the behavior of the beneficiaries was brazen and uncovered — who knows how many cases there might be where plots to kill the insured were more subtle and beneficiaries didn’t take out as many claims?

While cases in the Fourth Circuit and Eighth Circuit are just persuasive to their respective jurisdictions, courts all across the country are putting a greater burden on insurers to protect the lives of the insured when they know about plots on their lives, by either canceling policies, not issuing them in the first place, or declaring policies void if the beneficiary murders the insured.

For Richins, at least, it is likely that life insurance companies don’t need to pay out the over $2 million in life insurance money, especially if she is convicted.

The writers of the Constitution likely didn’t think about life insurance fraud when they wrote it. It’s important for us to know that unfortunately, a lot of insured people had to be killed or almost be killed for courts and legislatures to confront the issue.

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Believer, Baltimore City IEP Chair, and 2:39 marathon runner. Diehard fan of "The Wire"

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