This matter comes before the court on the return date of two orders to show cause issued in these companion cases instituted by Jagan Vadlamudi in his capacity as administrator of the estate of Desapathi Vadlamudi and as guardian of the person and property of the two minor children of decedent. The administrator seeks instructions as to whether (1) under N.J.S.A. 3A:2A-83(a) decedent's surviving spouse, Amita, is entitled to share in his estate and (2) under N.J.S.A. 3A:2A-83(c) she is entitled as named beneficiary to receive the proceeds from insurance policies issued on the life of decedent, or whether such proceeds should pass to the alternate beneficiaries.
The material facts are not in dispute. On February 14, 1981 Amita Vadlamudi killed her husband Desapathi with an axe. She was tried on a charge of murder on September 16 and 17, 1981 by a judge without a jury and found not guilty by reason of insanity. The evidence at the murder trial included the reports of three psychiatrists and a practicing licensed psychologist. Two of the doctors testified. All of the doctors and psychologist were of the opinion that at the time she killed her husband Amita was suffering from a "brief reactive psychosis" and did not know that her act of killing was wrong. At least one psychiatrist, Dr. David Flicker, was of the opinion that Amita knew she was killing her husband with the axe. All concluded that she was insane at the time of the killing.
N.J.S.A. 3A:2A-83 generally states that one who intentionally kills another is barred from receiving any benefits by reason of the death of the decedent to which the killer would otherwise have succeeded. The statute provides in pertinent part:
a. A surviving spouse, heir or devisee who intentionally kills the decedent is not entitled to any benefits under a[n] . . . estate and the estate of decedent passes as if the killer had predeceased the decedent. . .
c. A named beneficiary of a . . . life insurance policy . . . who intentionally kills . . . the person upon whose life the policy is issued is not entitled to any benefit under the . . . policy . . ., and it becomes payable as though the killer had predeceased the decedent.
e. A final judgment of conviction of intentional killing is conclusive for purposes of this section. In the absence of a conviction of intentional killing the court may determine by a preponderance of the evidence whether the killing was intentional for purposes of this section. . . .
This statute was enacted as part of the new Wills and Probate Reform Act, L. 1977, c. 412, codified as N.J.S.A. 3A:2A-1 et seq. , which was adapted from the Uniform Probate Code. See Assembly Judiciary, Law, Public Safety and Defense Committee Statement to Assembly Bill 1712 of 1977. The above-cited provisions of the statute are virtually identical to the corresponding subsections of Uniform Probate Code (U.L.A.), § 2-803 (1969).
Counsel for Jagan Vadlamudi urges the court to consider whether the adoption of N.J.S.A. 3A:2A-83 in any way changes or modifies the common law rule that the killing of another by a person who is insane does not constitute a bar to sharing in decedent's estate or life insurance policies. He argues that the phrase "intentionally kills" in a civil action brought under N.J.S.A. 3A:2A-83 has a different connotation than it has in the area of criminal responsibility. Thus, he argues that one who kills while insane is not necessarily entitled to benefit from the death of the decedent because the killer, although suffering from a disease of the mind so as to escape criminal responsibility, may nevertheless have intended the homicidal act so as to bring the homicide within the provisions of N.J.S.A. 3A:2A-83(a) through (d). He further argues that, in any event, the Probate Court in a civil action such as this should hold a plenary hearing on the issue of insanity and arrive at its own independent
findings. Counsel for Amita argues that one who kills while insane is entitled to take benefits from the decedent as a matter of law. She further argues that an acquittal of murder by reason of insanity is conclusive on the issue of insanity and makes any further hearings in the probate action unnecessary.
The issues to be decided at this juncture of the case are clearly framed. (1) Is a person who kills another while insane one who "intentionally kills" within the meaning of N.J.S.A. 3A:2A-83; (2) Does an acquittal of a murder charge by reason of insanity have a conclusive effect for purposes of N.J.S.A. 3A:2A-83, or (3) Should the probate court conduct a plenary hearing and make an ...