BURT V. UNION CENTRAL LIFE INS. CO., 187 U. S. 362 (1902)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Burt v. Union Central Life Ins. Co., 187 U.S. 362 (1902)

Burt v. Union Central Life Insurance Company

No. 70

Argued November 6, 1902

Decided December 22, 1902

187 U.S. 362


As public policy forbids the insertion in a contract of a condition which would tend to induce crime, it also forbids the enforcement of a contract under circumstances which cannot be lawfully stipulated for.

Where a man who has committed murder thereafter assigns a policy of insurance on his own life payable to his estate and is subsequently convicted and executed for the crime, the beneficiaries cannot recover on the policy. The crime of the assured is not one of the risks covered by a policy of insurance, and there is an implied obligation on his part to do nothing to wrongfully accelerate the maturity of the policy.

It is the policy of every state to uphold the dignity and integrity of its courts of justice, and as contracts insuring against miscarriage of justice would encourage litigation and bring reproach upon the state, its judiciary, and executive, they would be against public policy and void, and therefore an action cannot be maintained by the beneficiaries of an insurance policy on the life of a man executed for murder on the ground that his conviction and execution were unjust.

This was an action to recover on a policy of life insurance, commenced in the District Court of Travis County, Texas, and removed to the Circuit Court of the United States for the Western District of Texas. The policy was issued August 1, 1894. William E. Burt was the insured. The policy, in case of death, was payable to Anna M. Burt, the wife of the insured, if living, otherwise to his executors, administrators, or assigns. On September 10, 1895, the beneficiary, Anna M. Burt, and her husband, the insured, assigned a one-half interest to plaintiffs to secure them as creditors of the assignors. On July 24, 1896, the beneficiary, Anna M. Burt, died intestate, as did also the only children of the beneficiary and the insured. On February 4, 1897, the insured, William E. Burt, conveyed to the plaintiffs the remaining interest in the policy, making them the sole owners of it. They are also his sole heirs, and as such are

Page 187 U. S. 363

entitled to the full benefit of the policy, there being no administration on his estate, nor any necessity for one.

On November 27, 1896, the insured, having been indicted for the murder of his wife, Anna M. Burt, the beneficiary, was tried and convicted in the District Court of Travis County, Texas, a court of competent jurisdiction, was sentenced to be put to death, and on May 27, 1898, was hanged pursuant to such sentence. The petition in this case alleged that, notwithstanding such conviction, sentence, and execution, the insured, William E. Burt, did not in fact commit the crime of murder, nor participate therein, but that, if he did, the policy was not avoided thereby because he was at the time insane.

The policy, which in its general scope was an ordinary policy of life insurance, contained these provisions:

"Third. If the insured should, without the written consent of the company at any time enter the military or naval service, the militia excepted, or become employed in a liquor saloon, or if the insured should die by self-destruction, whether sane or insane, within three years from date hereof, this policy shall be null and void."

"* * * *"

"The contract of insurance between the parties hereto is completely set forth in this policy and the application for the same."

A demurrer to the petition was sustained and judgment entered for the defendant, which was thereafter affirmed by the Court of Appeals of the Fifth Circuit, 105 F.4d 9, and thereupon the case was brought here on certiorari. 181 U.S. 617.

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