On August 17, 1942 the deceased, Charles W. Wells, entered into a contract of life insurance with the Prudential Insurance Company of America. This policy when issued contained the name of his then wife, Helen V. Wells, as sole beneficiary. After their divorce decedent exercised his power to change the beneficiary and on May 11, 1955 named Margaret E. Lonie, fiancee, as the primary beneficiary, and her three children, Sandra Lonie, Graham Lonie and Norman Lonie, as alternate or contingent beneficiaries. The decedent later married Margaret E. Lonie, and thereafter Charles W. Wells, Jr. was born of the union; and the wife was, on the date of death of decedent, enceinte with child, born subsequently and named Moira Wells. Needless to say, no other change of beneficiary was made, hence this action.
On February 8, 1958 Charles W. Wells died from wounds inflicted by gun shots, for which his wife, Margaret E. Wells, was tried and convicted of murder in the second degree; and for which she is presently confined in prison.
Suit was instituted by plaintiff as administrator of the decedent's estate to secure payment to him of the $5,000
policy. Defendants are the insurance company, the aforesaid five children and the widow. By interpleader on cross-claim the monies have been paid into court and the insurance company discharged. Default has been entered against the widow, the convicted murderess. Guardians ad litem have been appointed for all children, they being minors.
Plaintiff and the guardian ad litem for the two children born of the marriage between the deceased and the convicted murderer contend the proceeds should be paid to the administrator. The guardian ad litem for the three older children born of the previous marriage of the widow and convicted murderer who are the named alternate or contingent beneficiaries, contends the proceeds should be paid to him, for their exclusive benefit.
The policy of insurance contained this written provision as a beneficiary rider form:
"A beneficiary designated in this rider shall be entitled to payment only if he or she is living at the death of the insured and if there is not then living a beneficiary designated in a prior class." (Emphasis supplied.)
As stated by Chief Justice Vanderbilt in Neiman v. Hurff , 11 N.J. 55, 60 (1952):
"To permit the murderer to retain title to the property acquired by his crime as permitted in some states is abhorrent to even the most rudimentary sense of justice. It violates the policy of the common law that no one shall be allowed to profit by his own wrong ' nullus commondum capere protest de injuria sua propria.'" See Merrity v. Prudential Insurance Co. , 110 N.J.L. 414 (E. & A. 1933), and Swavely v. Prudential Insurance Co. , 10 N.J. Misc. 1 (Sup. Ct. 1931).
The same reasoning has been universally declared as one of public policy, that the murderer shall not benefit by his deed either through insurance proceeds or property rights.
The question as to who shall receive said insurance proceeds as between the personal representative of the insured's estate and the alternate ...