Abstract: The civil justice system has long struggled to resolve disputes over end-of-life transfers. The two most common grounds for challenging the validity of a gift, will, or trust—mental incapacity and undue influence—are vague, hinge on the state of mind of a dead person, and allow factfinders to substitute their own norms and preferences for the donor’s intent. In addition, the slayer doctrine—which prohibits killers from inheriting from their victims—has generated decades of constitutional challenges.
But recently, these controversial rules have migrated into an area where the stakes are significantly higher: the criminal justice system. For example, states have criminalized financial exploitation of an elder, which includes obtaining assets through undue influence. Likewise, prosecutors are bringing theft charges against people who accept transfers from mentally diminished owners. Finally, legislatures are experimenting with abuser statutes that extend the slayer doctrine by barring anyone from receiving property from the estate of a senior citizen whom they mistreated.
This Article evaluates the benefits and costs of this trend. It explains that these new sanctions deter elder abuse: wrongdoing that is rampant, pernicious, and underreported. Nevertheless, this Article exposes the dangers of criminalizing this unique area of law. First, criminal undue influence and the abuser doctrine may be unconstitutional in some situations. Second, inheritance crimes suffer from the flaws that make probate litigation so unreliable. Third, because inheritance law and criminal law have been traditionally understood as distinct, jurisdictions have not yet figured out how to gracefully merge them. Finally, this Article builds on these insights to argue that states should abolish criminal undue influence, harmonize civil and criminal rules, and create exceptions to abuser laws.