The Wisconsin District 4 Court of Appeals on Thursday ruled that the wife and the daughter of a Wisconsin man who committed suicide can inherit their estate even if they assisted in the act. The ruling was criticized by Wisconsin Right to Life for giving a financial incentive for people to help their relatives kill themselves.
The ruling concerned a Wisconsin law that prevents anyone who "intentionally kills" another from inheriting from that person, the Associated Press reports.
Writing for the unanimous three-judge panel, Judge Margaret Vergeront argued "A person who assists another in voluntarily and intentionally taking his or her own life is plainly not depriving the other of life."
"We do not agree that 'killer' is commonly understood to mean the person who provides the means that enable another to kill himself or herself," she continued.
The case involved Linda and Megan Schunk, the wife and daughter of Edward Schunk, who died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in January 2006 while suffering from Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
The two women admitted that they drove Mr. Schunk home from the hospital on a one-day pass the day he committed suicide. According to the Associated Press, Mr. Schunk’s six older children he had with different women alleged the two knew he wanted to commit suicide, drove him to a cabin on the property, helped him inside, gave him a loaded shotgun, and left.
Under his will, Mr. Schunk’s wife and teenage daughter were to inherit 80 acres of land, a $100,000 life insurance policy, equipment from his logging company and other money. The total estate, valued at $488,000 in 2006, left little or nothing for Schunk’s older children.
For the purposes of the decision, the court assumed the allegations of Schunk’s older children were true, but ruled in the wife’s and youngest daughter’s favor.
"Providing Edward with a loaded shotgun did not deprive him of his life: he deprived himself of life by shooting himself with the shotgun," Judge Vergeront wrote.
Terry Moore, an Eau Claire lawyer who represents the now-20-year-old Megan Schunk, said the case was a "one-in-a-million situation" and doubted the ruling would have broad impact, the Associated Press reports. Moore asserted that the ruling correctly reflects the fact that assisted suicide is not covered in Wisconsin inheritance law.
Under Wisconsin law, the AP says, anyone who helps another person commit suicide is guilty of a felony and can face up to six years in prison.
Barbara Lyons, executive director of Wisconsin Right to Life, criticized the ruling in a Thursday statement, arguing the decision "opens the door for individuals to assist a family member with suicide and then be able to collect an inheritance from the decedent’s estate."
"This decision has ominous implications for Wisconsin citizens by giving a financial motive to those who provide the means for someone to kill themselves."
Lyons said that Wisconsin Right to Life plans to seek judicial or legislative action to close the case’s "loophole."
"For the protection of our citizens, the state should not provide a financial motive to those who participate in a suicide," she said.