Why the Patriots could owe money to Aaron Hernandez

Aaron Hernandez timeline (1:36)

Aaron Hernandez's football career began with a great deal of promise, but ended when he was sent to prison. He ultimately took his own life. (1:36)

In the wake of Aaron Hernandez's death, the New England Patriots might be forced to pay his family a significant sum of money. This stems from a quirk of Massachusetts law that requires Hernandez's 2013 conviction for the first-degree murder of Odin Lloyd to be voided.

Once the process for vacating that conviction is completed, all of Hernandez's legal affairs will be concluded. That will clear the way for the longstanding dispute over his payment between the NFL Players Association and the Patriots to play out. According to the NFLPA, there are three outstanding grievances involving Hernandez and the Patriots. How these are resolved will determine what, if any, money changes hands.

The Patriots released Hernandez on June 26, 2013, less than two hours after he was arrested for the Lloyd murder. That set off a series of moves involving Hernandez's $40 million contract extension, which was signed a year earlier and included guaranteed bonus money. After the arrest, the team refused to make a bonus payment of $3.25 million, leading the NFLPA to file a grievance over the money. The team responded with its own grievance, seeking the return of all funds paid to Hernandez under the contract extension. The union would file a second grievance on behalf of Hernandez, seeking the payment of an $82,000 workout bonus.

NFLPA spokesman George Atallah told ESPN that the grievances were "put on hold" until Hernandez's murder cases were concluded. That process may now move forward. (The Patriots did not immediately respond for comment.) This is a complicated scenario that raises many legal questions:

Why is the NFLPA still concerned about Hernandez?

The NFL Players Association works for Hernandez just as it would work for any player in a contract dispute with a team over bonuses and salary. The NFLPA is obligated to pursue any money he may have been owed.

What is the process for resolving these grievances?

They are decided by an arbitrator. Each side will present evidence and there will be a nonpublic hearing. This arbitration process is established and defined in the collective bargaining agreement between the owners and the players. The arbitrator's decision is final. This process will likely conclude before the end of 2017.

NFL contracts typically have "conduct clauses" allowing teams to not pay players who have run afoul of the law. How would that impact Hernandez?

The standard player contract in the NFL provides that both the team and the league may take action against the player for any "conduct detrimental" to the sport of professional football. Both an arrest for murder and a conviction for murder qualify as "conduct detrimental." Under this clause, the Patriots may terminate the contract and release Hernandez, which they did immediately.

NFL contracts are not guaranteed. A release of the player ends the team's obligation to pay him the salary described in the contract. But bonus clauses are separate and frequently obligate the team to pay the bonuses even when the player is guilty of "conduct detrimental."

So what are the chances that Hernandez's estate wins money from the Patriots?

It is difficult to predict the outcome of a dispute over a contract bonus without knowing the language of the bonus clause, but former Falcons quarterback Michael Vick was successful in a roughly similar grievance that resulted from his arrest and guilty plea in a dogfighting prosecution. The language in his bonus clause demanded that he be paid, regardless of circumstances. So however illegal or "detrimental" his actions may have been, the Falcons were forced to pay most of the bonus money.

What happens in the Hernandez situation will depend both on the specific language of his contract and the arbitrator's interpretation of it.

Does Hernandez's murder conviction being vacated have any impact on the grievance process?

The only effect is that the grievances may now go through the arbitration process. They had been on hold pending the resolution of Hernandez's criminal cases.

Why must Hernandez's conviction for the Lloyd murder be vacated?

Under an ancient principle of Anglo-Saxon and American law, a person convicted of a crime must be allowed to complete an appeal of the conviction. Not all states still follow this principle, but Massachusetts does.

In 2015, Hernandez was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole for the killing of Lloyd. But at the time of his death Wednesday, Hernandez was in the process of pursuing an appeal. It had little hope of succeeding. Hernandez would have had to show that the judge made a serious error, but the judge in the Lloyd trial was careful to give him and his lawyers almost everything they requested. If she made any errors, they likely hurt the prosecution.

Nevertheless, because Hernandez is no longer able to complete the appeal, the conviction cannot stand. The local district attorney has the right to contest the conviction's voiding, but it most likely will be vacated under well-established principles of Massachusetts law.

What is the effect of Hernandez's death on the lawsuits that the families of the three murder victims filed against him?

The families who sued Hernandez for the wrongful deaths of their sons and brothers already faced a daunting task. Hernandez's death makes their quests even more difficult. If Hernandez were still alive, the family of Odin Lloyd could have relied on the evidence presented in the trial in 2015 that resulted in Hernandez's conviction and sentence. Under a legal doctrine known as "collateral estoppel," Hernandez would have been barred from denying that he killed Lloyd. The Lloyd family would have been entitled to an instant ruling that Hernandez was responsible for the death, and the trial jury would have decided only the amount of money damages.

But Hernandez's death will eliminate the murder conviction and prevent Lloyd's family from relying on the evidence presented in the trial. Instead, the family faces the enormously expensive prospect of reassembling the massive quantity of evidence that prosecutors presented to the jury in 2015.

The families of the 2012 murder victims in Boston, Daniel de Abreu and Safiro Furtado, are also suing Hernandez and face an even more difficult challenge. Last week, a jury in Boston ruled that Hernandez was not guilty of the two killings. The burden of proof in a civil case is lower than in a criminal trial, but presenting the evidence necessary to prove that Hernandez more likely than not killed de Abreu and Furtado will be expensive and difficult.

What about the families' ability to win money?

This depends in part on the resolution of Hernandez's grievances with the NFL.

As of now, the Hernandez estate most likely has few assets that could be collected. Hernandez spent a huge sum on the attorneys who defended him in the two trials, and it will be difficult for the families to find any other Hernandez assets. His friends, lawyers and advisers have had nearly four years to hide whatever he has.

If Hernandez's estate is awarded money from the Patriots, though, those dollars could be in play.

What is the effect of Hernandez's death on his NFL pension?

Hernandez was entitled to a pension based on playing at least three years in the NFL. The pension will be paid to his 4-year-old daughter, who was named as his beneficiary in the event of his death. The child's mother, Shayanna Jenkins-Hernandez, will act on the child's behalf until she is 18 years old. Federal law stipulates that pension payments are immune from being collected as the result of a civil suit, so there is no risk of Hernandez's family losing the payments.