Judge denies life insurance benefits to son of murder victim; money was to be used for mother's criminal defense

By Jon Campisi | Jan 6, 2012

The adult son of a Bucks County, Pa. woman accused in the shooting death of her husband in late 2010 will not immediately receive his late father’s life insurance policy, a federal judge in Philadelphia has ruled.

U.S. District Judge Mitchell S. Goldberg on Wednesday denied a motion for summary judgment that had been filed by Gabriel Burkland, seeking to reap the proceeds from Michael Burkland’s life insurance and accidental death policy held by Metropolitan Life Insurance Company.

Michael Burkland was shot to death on Oct. 3, 2010, allegedly at the hands of his wife, Dorleen Burkland.

Goldberg ruled that the life insurance and accidental death benefits issued by Metropolitan Life through Michael Burkland’s employer, United Airways, should remain with the insurance company pending the outcome of Dorleen Burkland’s criminal case at the Bucks County Court of Common Pleas.

The defendants in the civil case, Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. and Dean Burkland, the brother of the deceased and Michael Burkland’s estate executor, had argued against the distribution of the funds in light of Pennsylvania’s Slayer’s Act, which prohibits convicted murderers or accessories to murder from benefitting financially at the expense of the deceased.

Dorleen Burkland is named as the primary beneficiary of her dead husband’s $149,000 life insurance policy; Gabriel Burkland is named as contingent beneficiary.

According to background information on the case in Goldberg’s ruling, Dorleen Burkland had appeared before Bucks County Court Judge Jeffrey L. Finley in late April of last year to discuss the status of her counsel for her upcoming homicide trial.

Gabriel Burkland, who attended the status hearing, informed Finley that his mother was in the process of disclaiming her rights to the life insurance policy and that as contingent beneficiary, Gabriel Burkland was planning to give a portion of the insurance proceeds to his mother so she could retain private counsel.

Currently, Dorleen Burkland is being represented by a public defender.

Michael Burkland’s estate, however, contended that this transaction would violate the Slayer’s Act.

Subsequent legal wrangling over the issue took place in the ensuing months.

In July, Dorleen Burkland filed a pro se notice of removal of all state court actions, invoking federal question jurisdiction under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act.

No one involved in the litigation objected to the move, according to the judge’s ruling.

Goldberg’s ruling states that all parties involved in the case met for a status conference in late October. In early November, Gabriel Burkland filed the motion for summary judgment seeking the insurance money. The defendants opposed the motion. Oral argument on the matter was held on Dec. 15.

In ruling against Gabriel Burkland, Goldberg wrote that the estate’s allegations that the monetary exchange would violate ERISA and the Pennsylvania Slayer’s Act was sufficient to prevent the insurance proceeds from being doled out, at least until the conclusion of the criminal trial.

“The Estate, on behalf of the deceased, has a legally protected interest in seeing that the deceased’s insurance proceeds are not delivered in a manner that would violate ERISA or the terms of the plan,” the judge wrote.

Goldberg also ruled that despite arguments from the plaintiff’s attorney that the ERISA claims preempted the state’s Slayer’s Act arguments, “the insurance proceeds at issue should not be distributed to Plaintiff at this time.”

“Our research has not revealed any authority that has determined whether the Pennsylvania Slayer’s Act is preempted by ERISA,” the judge wrote. “Nor does the ERISA statute specifically address a ‘slayer’ situation.”

In the end, Goldberg determined that it would be inappropriate to order the insurance company to turn over the money to Gabriel Burkland at this juncture.

“Given these circumstances, the arrangement between Dorleen Burkland and Plaintiff clearly circumvents the principles of Pennsylvania’s Slayer’s Act and the federal common law developed under ERISA,” the ruling states. “These principals clearly dictate that individuals convicted of murdering another may not receive financial benefits from the victim’s death.

“This long-standing rule would have little effect if, after being charged with homicide, Dorleen Burkland could ‘disclaim’ her interest in the victim’s life insurance policy and effectively collect the proceeds from Plaintiff prior to a judicial determination as to her ‘slayer’ status.”

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