Timing Is Everything in the Benoit Inheritance Case

Whether Benoit's wife or son died first could decide the fate of his millions.

Aug. 16, 2007 — -- A macabre legal battle is brewing surrounding pro wrestler Chris Benoit, who authorities say killed his wife and son, then took his own life this past June. Who Benoit killed first — his wife or his son — will determine who stands to inherit the pro-wrestler's estate, likely to be worth millions.

Fayetteville, Ga., authorities say that Benoit killed his wife sometime on the night of June 22 and then waited until the following morning to kill his son, Daniel.

But the family of Benoit's deceased wife, Nancy, is questioning these findings.

"Like everyone else, I've seen preliminary findings and opinions," said Richard Decker, the Atlanta lawyer representing Nancy's parents, Paul and Maureen Toffoloni. "We're not so sure that what we're hearing is exactly correct."

If Nancy's family can prove that she was the last person to be killed by Benoit, her family will have legal rights to the estate, said Cary Ichter, the lawyer representing Benoit's father, Michael. Otherwise, the wrestler's estate belongs to Benoit's two children from a previous marriage.

While the lawyers from either side couldn't be specific as to what, exactly, the heirs will inherit, Ichter confirmed that several pieces of real estate, cash and investments are part of Benoit's estate.

The Slayer Statute Complicates Inheritance

Evidence shows that Benoit was the last to die in the family's Fayetteville home, which would ordinarily mean that his children, who are next of kin, would automatically be the legal heirs.

But a state law known as the slayer statute says that Benoit is legally considered the first person to die, making the timing of the deaths of Nancy and Daniel crucial in determining who becomes the legal heirs.

"The slayer statue is kind of a traditional legal principle that says if you caused someone's death you shouldn't prosper from it," said John Spears of the law firm Spears & Spears law, which deals primarily with state fiduciary litigation.

As a result, whoever of Benoit's relatives was the last to die inherits the estate, experts told ABC News.

"What happens here is that it depends on the order of death," said Spears. "And if the order in which the two of them died is established, then Georgia law is going to be really clear about who inherits."

Validity of Autopsies Up for Debate

While the county's preliminary autopsy says Nancy was killed before Daniel, Nancy's lawyer is skeptical.

"We watched what the DA has said publicly, and that they think Chris killed Nancy and then killed Daniel but we've come to learn that there are some facts that might indicate that that's not exactly the way it happened," said Decker.

Both Benoit's father's lawyer and the district attorney remain confident that the autopsy accurately recorded the sequence of events.

"My position is that this is what the medical examinations said and what the people who saw the crime scene said and the bodies are now gone," said Ichter, Benoit's father's representative. "I know of no basis on which it could be contested."

The autopsies have been completed and the results have been communicated orally to the county sheriff's office, but the final written report could take another few weeks, according to a spokesperson from the Georgia Bureau of Investigations.

"I have no reason right now to think there is any error in those conclusions of the medical examiner," said Fayetteville District Attorney Scott Ballard.

Ballard added that there were specific reasons that led the medical examiner to believe that Nancy's murder had occurred hours before her son's death.

"It was primarily the state of decomposition of the bodies," that determined the time of deaths, Ballard told ABC News. "The mother's body had begun to turn black and there were flies and larva around. The little boy showed no such signs of decomposition, really."

With Autopsies Come Uncertainty

As important as it is for both sides of Benoit's family to know exactly what happened inside the mansion, forensic experts told ABC News that it's just not that simple.

Because of external factors, a victim's time of death is never certain, they say.

"[Autopsies] still defy precise determination by forensic pathologists," said Dr. Cyril H. Wecht, a forensic pathologist. "When you talk about determining time of death, to a great extent we aren't much more advanced now than we were 100 years ago."

"When you have deaths that occur within a relatively short period of time you have to be very careful in trying to determine who might have died first because there are variables," said Wecht. When determining the presumed time of death, "body mass, an adult versus a child, an obese corpulent person in contrast to a slender one, and the presence of some kinds of pre-existing disease processes can even have some bearing."

Because investigators found the bodies days after they are presumed to have been killed, the less certain they can be about Nancy's and Daniel's times of death, said Wecht.

Authorities also reported that Nancy and Daniel were found in two separate rooms, which Wecht said may have affected how the bodies decomposed, depending on differing room temperatures.

Millions May Remain Unclaimed for Years

While lawyers representing both Nancy's family and Benoit's filed a joint motion in the Fayette County Superior Court last week to determine who died first, the proceedings are sure to get complicated.

A preliminary hearing is scheduled for Aug. 28, but lawyers say it's unlikely much will be decided about the fate of the estate.

In the meantime, both sides of the family remain certain that they are the rightful heirs of Benoit's estate.

"Michael Benoit is interested in making sure his grandchildren are taken care of. He has no other interest, and he isn't going to get anything out of this," said Ichter. "He feels a great deal of compassion for Nancy's family and understands this has been a tragedy for them as well."

Decker echoed similar sentiments on behalf on Nancy's family, and told ABC News that they just want the estate to end up in the hands of its legal owner.