Appeal from decree of Orphans' Court of Chester County, No. 166 of 1962, in re estate of John Rutledge Larendon, deceased.
Jerome J. Shestack, with him Michael R. Gardner, and Schnader, Harrison, Segal & Lewis, for appellant.
William H. Rivoir, Jr., in propria persona, with him Joseph G. Manta, Robert S. Gawthrop, Jr., and LaBrum & Doak, and Gawthrop & Greenwood, for appellee.
Bell, C. J., Jones, Cohen, Eagen, O'Brien, Roberts and Pomeroy, JJ. Opinion by Mr. Justice Pomeroy. Dissenting Opinion by Mr. Chief Justice Bell. Dissenting Opinion by Mr. Justice Cohen.
On August 1, 1960, Robert B. Dalton and John R. Larendon purchased certain tracts of land situated in Chester County and the improvements thereon (hereinafter "the property"), taking title thereto as joint tenants with the right of survivorship. On December 7, 1960, Larendon died in California where he was domiciled; following trial by jury in the Superior Court of the State of California, in and for the County of San Diego, Dalton was convicted of having murdered Larendon, and his conviction was affirmed on appeal by the California District Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District.
Subsequent to the death of Larendon, but prior to Dalton's conviction, judgment in favor of one M. H. Eastburn was entered against Dalton in Chester County. After intervening proceedings not here relevant, a writ of execution based on the aforesaid judgment issued out of the Chester County Court of Common Pleas,
and appellant Isadore Dresner purchased Dalton's interest in the property at a sheriff's sale held on March 18, 1966. Thereafter, having been denied possession of the property by the ancillary administrator of Larendon's estate (appellee herein),*fn1 Dresner sought a declaratory judgment in the court below as to the nature and extent of the interest in the property which Dalton had had and he (Dresner) had purchased. The lower court determined that the instant dispute was controlled by the terms of the Slayer's Act, Act of August 5, 1941, P.L. 816, § 1, 20 P.S. § 3441 (hereinafter "the Act"); that Dalton's interest in the property became a life interest in one-half of the property upon the death of Larendon; and that the estate of Larendon simultaneously became the owner of a fee interest in the other one-half of the property, together with a vested remainder interest in the other one-half of the property in which Dalton had a life estate. It thus followed, and the court so decreed, that Dresner's purchase was a life interest in one-half of the property, the interest being measured by Dalton's life. Upon reargument the court reaffirmed its original decision; this appeal followed.
The maxim that no one should be allowed to profit by his own wrong has long been a doctrine of the common law.*fn2 It is most frequently invoked in cases involving the succession of property from one slain to that person's slayer. That "the social interest served by refusing to permit the criminal to profit by his crime is greater than that served by the preservation and enforcement of legal rights of ownership"*fn3 is no longer
debated, but the resolution of specific cases without statutory guidance proved vexatious to common law courts. Pennsylvania's first statutory response to this problem came in the decedents' estates acts of 1917.*fn4 In 1936, Professor (now Dean) Wade proposed a model statute to resolve the many difficulties inherent in an ad hoc approach to the succession problem,*fn5 and in 1941 his model statute was substantially adopted in Pennsylvania in the form of the Slayer's Act, supra.*fn6 See Kravitz Estate, 418 Pa. 319, 322, 211 A.2d 443 (1965), and Comment, 46 Dickinson L. Rev. 99 (1942).
Application of the Slayer's Act to the case at hand necessitates some prior consideration of the purposes of the Act read as a whole. The intent of the Act is stated in Section 15 which provides that the "act shall not be considered penal in nature, but shall be construed broadly in order to effect the policy of this State that no person shall be allowed to profit by his own wrong, wherever committed." 20 P.S. § 3455. By its express terms, the Act attempts to insure that a person will not benefit from his ...