Payout battle on death row: State Farm fights to uphold "Slayer Statute"

By Vanessa De La Rosa

It’s a grisly, decade-old story that is probably familiar to Pennsylvanians. On Christmas Eve, 2002, a man broke into his estranged wife’s home with a gun and fatally shot her and their two daughters. The lone survivor was the murderer’s infant granddaughter, who fell to the floor and survived for a day before being discovered by police.

The perpetrator, Ernest Wholaver, murdered his family less than one month before they were scheduled to testify against him in court for yet another heinous and unthinkable crime: sexually abusing his daughters. I didn’t think my opinion of this man could sink any lower. But just wait.

Wholaver — although insisting of his innocence — was convicted on three first-degree murder charges in 2004 for the slaying of his wife, Jean Wholaver, and daughters, Victoria and Elizabeth Wholaver (aged 20 and 15 respectively). He received a death sentence and is currently in prison awaiting execution. His brother, Scott Wholaver, was sentenced to 12.5 to 25 years in prison on a third-degree murder plea after admitting he drove Ernest to the scene of the crime.

Jean Wholaver took out a $25,000 life insurance policy with State Farm Life Insurance Co. in August 1998. She named her husband as the primary beneficiary, her daughters as successor beneficiaries, and her brother-in-law, Scott Wholaver, farther down the list of potential beneficiaries. After Ernest and Scott were convicted and sentenced for their crimes, State Farm made a civil complaint, arguing that neither man should be considered a lawful beneficiary and asking the court to guarantee that neither man will see even one penny of the policy’s payout. As The Patirot-News notes, “The court case over who should receive the proceeds of Jean Wholaver’s life insurance has been going on for some time.”

Pennsylvania’s “Slayer Statute” forbids convicted murderers from profiting from the deaths of their victims, which renders Ernest Wholaver unfit to inherit the proceeds. The next beneficiary in line is Jean Wholaver’s granddaughter, Madison, who is now 10 years old and lives with her father, Frank Ramos. Court records also show that Frank Ramos is the executor of Jean Wholaver’s estate.

But now Ernest Wholaver is requesting more time from the court, so that he can file against State Farm and have the complaint dismissed. He is appealing his murder convictions and wants State Farm to hold onto the policy for “a few more years” until his appeal processes are complete. Oh, and he also wants the court to appoint him legal representation. He is seeking a lawyer “due to his current incarceration and status as a capital case prisoner and his lack of knowledge in law.” Judge Lawrence F. Clark Jr. rejected Ernest Wholaver’s plea for an attorney in a Nov. 13 order.

In the meantime, State Farm is requesting permission to pay the $25,000 policy to the county prothonotary “for ultimate distribution as the court may decide.”

Dauphin County District Attorney, Edward M. Marsico Jr., said, “I’m horrified that there is even a remote possibility that he could benefit.” And frankly, so am I.