Million Dollar Baby

Greed, Children, Life Insurance and Murder

Posted Apr 28, 2014

What do you get when you mix poverty-stricken parents, vulnerable children, temptation and greed? According to many concerned citizens living in the late 1800’s – and more than a few legal professionals –murder.  In fact, along with the proliferation of child life insurance policies (80% of insurable children were covered by some form of life insurance in the late 19th and early 2oth centuries) came dire warnings of their potential for abuse. According to one judge in a January 4, 1991 article in the New York Times, “Oftentimes, it would be a much more correct definition of these so-called life insurance societies to say that they are death insurance societies which insure children, which seem to be instituted for the destruction of children and the perpetuation of murder.”

Attempts to reduce the potential demise of these innocent victims led to calls for life insurance benefits be paid either directly to undertakers or for the insurable amount to be reduced.  Between 1889 and 1895, bills to ban insurance on the life of children were introduced in legislatures of Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Canada.  By the late 19th century, the belief that infant life insurance policies was a motive for murder was widespread in the U.S. and in England.

Worth More Dead than Alive

But was it?  In spite of alarmist propaganda, actual cases of child homicide where it was alleged that life insurance money was a motive for murder were rare.  After several states conducted extensive investigations, they unanimously concluded that most working parents who were unlucky enough to be the beneficiary of a deceased child’s policy used the money for what they bought it for; to make pay for funeral and incidental expenses they could otherwise not afford.

However, there were exceptions.  In 1886 Sarah Robinson was under suspicion for murdering her children when both her son and daughter fell ill within close proximity to each other and soon after Robinson had taken out a policy on them. Robinson was convicted of using arsenic to poison not only her children, but her relatives as well.

The Easy Target

Most of us have heard about a wife who insures her husband – or vice versa- for thousands of dollars and then bumps her off to collect it.  Some of us may have even wondered if a spouse could secretly take a life insurance policy out on us and if there was any way to find out if he or she did? (Stay tuned; these questions will be answered in my next blog).  Few parents, however, worry about a spouse insuring a child and then killing him or her for the money.

 It can and does happen.  First of all, from a life insurance perspective, parents are automatically thought to have an “insurable interest” in their child’s life, making it easy for them to take out a policy.  An “insurable interest” means that the insurer would suffer some form of financial hardship should the insured die; with the death of a child, a parent may suffer financially in terms of having to pay for funeral expenses, may lose work time due to prolonged grief or bereavement, or may have outstanding medical bills.  (Life insurance companies who give policies to individuals without an insurable interest in the insured can be held liable, as evidenced from a 1957 case in which an aunt took out a life insurance policy on her two year old niece without the parents knowledge, murdered her, and then attempted to collect the money).  

Also, unlike adults, parents can buy life insurance on a child younger than 15 without his or her signature.  Theoretically, at least, a child could grow up to become an adult and never know s/he has a bounty on his or her head. 

Quick Death for Quick Cash

It’s impossible to know how often people get away with murder for life insurance money; we only hear about the ones who get caught.  Most parents who wind up behind bars don’t wait long to put their plan into action; perhaps that initially gets law enforcements attention.  For example, in 1995, Dina Abelhaq suffocated her seven-week-old daughter Tara to collect $200,000 in life insurance money to feed her gambling addiction, just two weeks after she took out a life insurance policy on her child.   

Similarly, stepfather Joel Zellmer was convicted of second degree murder after his toddler-aged stepdaughter allegedly drowned in a swimming pool just three months after he insured her life for thousands of dollars.  And Karl Karlson, who confessed to killing his 23 year old son for money, had taken out a $700,000 life insurance policy on him just 17 days beforehand. 

The Postman Often Rings Twice

Two other commonalities stand out among parents who murder a child for money; they often have a history of life insurance fraud – sometimes involving murder.  Angelina Rodriguez, convicted of first degree murder under the special circumstances of murder by administering poison and murder for financial gain, almost certainly murdered her 13 month old daughter to collect on an insurance policy several years earlier; two months before the baby died choking on a pacifier, Ms. Rodriguez had insured her child’s life for $50,000, named herself as the primary beneficiary, and did not tell her husband about the policy.

Garrett Wilson, convicted of murdering his 5 month old son in 1987, is also facing trial for allegedly killing his infant daughter in 1981.  He insured Brandi, his daughter for $40,000 a month after she was born, which he collected and spent in short order after she died.  (Her death was initially attributed to SIDs).  When his son was born six years later, he bought two life insurance policies totaling $150,000, was the last person to see his son alive, and, as he had after the loss of his daughter, went on a spending binge after his son died.   

And then there’s David Crist, who attempted to kill his 9 year old deaf daughter by pushing her in front of an oncoming truck driven by a friend who had agreed to run the girl over for $5000.  Her dad, who owed more than $50,000 in credit card debt, stood to collect over $200,000 if his daughter died.  He was later convicted of the contract murder of his brother (to prevent him from collecting his half of their mother’s $300,000 estate and to collect $130,000 in life insurance).  To avoid added trauma via testimony, prosecutors decided not to prosecute him for the attempted murder of his 4 year old daughter, Miranda, after he handed her a 220 volt cable and told her to hold it while he went downstairs and threw a power switch.  Fortunately, she only suffered burns to her hands.

The Bottom Line

Proponents of child life insurance policies argue that insuring a child has the following benefits; a) the money can be used to pay for memorial and funeral expenses as well as any uninsured medical bills; b) some forms of child life insurance, such as whole life or universal life, can build tax-deferred cash value which can be later used for college tuition or down payment on a home and c) should your child develop a disability or chronic illness in later life, s/he will have pre-existing life insurance that can protect his/her own family should misfortunate fall.

Aside from the obvious financial cons – while the emotional impact of a child’s death is immeasurable, the financial loss is generally small; there are better ways to save for college; and the odds that a child will become uninsurable down the road is small – it is hard for me to see any reason, other than a devious one, why a parent would insure a child for astronomical amounts of cash.  I know the vast majority of parents wouldn’t trade a child’s life for his/her weight in gold.  But for the very few who would do so for much less; why make it possible?