MADISON, Wis. – The wife and daughter of a man who committed suicide can inherit his estate even if they assisted him in the act, a state appeals court ruled Thursday.
State law prohibits anyone who "intentionally kills" another from inheriting from the person, but Wisconsin's District 4 Court of Appeals said that provision does not apply to those who assist in suicide.
"Providing (the man) with a loaded shotgun did not deprive him of his life: he deprived himself of life by shooting himself with the shotgun," Judge Margaret Vergeront wrote for the unanimous three-judge panel.
Wisconsin Right to Life, which opposes assisted suicide, said the ruling gives people a financial incentive to help relatives die prematurely.
"It's a horrendous decision," said Barbara Lyons, the group's executive director.
"I think the implications are enormous," she said.
Boston College law professor Ray Madoff, an expert on inheritance law, said she has never heard of a similar ruling in the nation.
"This is something that people have been curious about where the law would draw the line, and it's interesting to actually have a case addressing it," she said.
Edward Schunk, 63, shot himself in 2006 in a cabin on his property while he was terminally ill with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a form of cancer. He left an estate valued at nearly $500,000.
The court ruled in favor of his wife, Linda, and youngest child, Megan Schunk, now 20, who were granted most of the estate under Schunk's will.
Schunk's six older children received little or nothing, according to court records. Five of them challenged the will, arguing that Linda and Megan Schunk took Schunk to the cabin, gave him a loaded shotgun and left even though they knew he was suicidal.
The two acknowledged they took him home from the hospital on a one-day pass but denied assisting his death. They said he had told them he wanted to go turkey hunting.
For the purposes of deciding the dispute, the court assumed the other children's allegations were true but still ruled in favor of the wife and younger daughter.
Under Wisconsin law, assisting in a suicide is punishable by up to six years in prison. Thursday's ruling did not address that law, and no one has been charged in Schunk's death.
Terry Moore, lawyer for Megan Schunk, called the case a "one-in-a-million situation" and said he doubted it would have broad impact. Lawyers for Schunk's other children did not immediately return phone messages. They could ask the Wisconsin Supreme Court to review the case.
Boston College's Madoff said courts often struggle with whether someone who kills another should be allowed to inherit their money, she said. It's an easier question when dealing with murder but more difficult in instances such as drunken driving, self-defense against spousal abuse or assisted suicide, she said.