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Friday, January 11, 2019

Sister fights to stop brother from inheriting from their parents after he killed them

Sometimes estates intersect with some pretty upsetting facts. I've come across a story from Australia that shows what happens when estate law meets criminal law. The legal questions are interesting, but they are more than that; they're upsetting and challenging because they deal with families and strong emotions.

In December 2014, 46-year-old Scott Settree got into an argument with his parents over a bottle of wine he had consumed without permission. He became upset and fatally shot both of his parents. He was charged with their murders but was eventually found not guilty because of mental illness. The judge said that there was no question Scott had killed his parents, but was suffering from a schizophrenic delusion at the time of the killing.

This is where estate law rules come in. In Australia, as in Canada, a person who is found guilty of killing someone is barred from inheriting from the victim's estate. I think the logic behind that rule is pretty plain.

In Scott Settree's case, he was found not guilty because of mental illness. This means he was found not to have known that what he did was wrong. The rule that would bar a killer from inheriting from his victim didn't apply to Scott even though everyone knew what he did, because he didn't have the mental ability to understand his actions. Read more about this story by clicking here.

This is already a complex question, but the added issue is that Scott has a sister, Wendy. She was devastated by the loss of her parents and the fact that her own brother was their killer. Then she had to deal with sharing the parents' estate with Scott. Wendy did not agree that Scott should be able to receive an inheritance under the circumstances and fought the law in court. She was mostly successful, but was told to keep $50,000 from each parent's estate in trust for him.

Now Wendy is trying to have the law that allows a person who is found not guilty of a murder because of mental illness changed so that others in Scott's situation cannot benefit from the situation.

There are some serious questions and issues here. The first that comes to mind is whether it's acceptable for a person who clearly killed someone to be allowed to inherit from the victim because he didn't appreciate the consequences of his actions. Does that appear to be a reward for behaviour that otherwise would be condemned? Whose acceptance is needed here? Generally the law relies on "community standards" and "reasonable people". Is this a situation where the distress of the family should override the rights of the accused killer? How important are the optics of the situation in terms of the public feeling that justice is being done?

And what about the mentally ill person? If he no longer has parents to support  him and he is not able to earn a living due to his mental illness, how does he live? Does he collect welfare and live on public money? Is that a better outcome than allowing him to receive his inheritance so that he could live without public support? Should someone be appointed to handle his inheritance for him?

Deciding what is right in a complex situation with so many variables is not easy. Wendy's campaign focuses on the issue that the verdict found her brother "not guilty" due to mental illness. She wants the wording changed so that his actions are acknowledged, even if he is not held criminally liable. She is having some effect and the Attorney-General of New South Wales is said to be addressing her issue. It will be interesting to see what they come up with.


  1. What comes to mind when someone is found to be mentally disabled is, how much is the person mentally disabled, 25%, 50%, 75% or 100%. We know little of the family background and the man's disability. We read that he was into drugs. Was he involved with drugs when he shot his parents? Was there a blood test done right after the shooting? Was his brain fried by drugs. Should he have been placed in a mental institution? The parents knowing of their son's instability would certainly be aware of how volatile their son could be. The sister must be aware of her brother's mental condition. How did her 46 year brother who lives at home with his parents get access to a gun?
    IMO, if he is considered to be partially or completely mentally disabled by that % as determined by experts, then the law can use that to determine the outcome.
    I have a friend who is having a very difficult time with an adult son who is into drugs. His son is very unstable and can be very difficult to deal with. He has been in treatment but somehow finds his way back to drugs.

    1. I would expect that those questions you've raised were brought up and answered during the trial. I haven't read the full trial transcript but I don't see how the judge could have made a determination of "not guilty due to mental illness" without hearing a ton of very detailed evidence.

      This whole thing is a very horrible situation for every single member of that family. I too have friends and clients who have had a son or daughter dragged down the ugly path of drug addiction. It affects everyone in the family, though perhaps not as drastically as in this particular story.



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