More often than one would think people stoop to unthinkable acts of depravity to profit from the estates of others. As a NY estate lawyer I often have a front row seat to these cases and the collateral damage these feuds create. The NY estate law is pretty clear on one thing, you cannot intentionally kill someone and inherit their estate, otherwise known as murder. But leave it to NY estate lawyers to find arguments around this seemingly unalienable rule. For instance, in Matter of Wirth, it was decided that a husband who killed his wife and later found not guilty by reason of insanity could inherit his wife’s estate. The man’s NY probate lawyers cleverly argued that while their client murdered his wife, he did not intentionally murder her due to his insanity, therefore lacked the requisite mindset at the time of the act to be disinherited. Miraculously the NY Surrogate’s Courts bought his attorney’s arguments and he was entitled to inherit the estate of his murdered wife.
If this rule sounds absurd that’s because it is. A string of recent NY probate cases most notably Matter of Brewer, revisited the court’s previous NY estate law rulings. In this case, social services repeatedly investigated and determined that Ms. Brewer, a schizophrenic mother of three, was deemed capable to care for her children. Ms. Brewer later drowned all three children during a psychotic episode and was deemed not competent to stand trial by reason of insanity. The irony is Ms. Brewer successfully sued the State of NY for permitting her to maintain custody of her three children thereby contributing to the cause of their deaths. Ms. Brewer won a $350,000.00 award. Unlike Matter of Wirth, Nassau Surrogate, Judge McCarty III, appropriately decided one who killed another could not benefit from their death regardless of whether the act was intentional or unintentional. As such, the settlement was distributed as if Ms. Brewer had predeceased her children and the settlement proceeds were distributed to their next of kin.
But the issue of murder within the NY estate law can be made even more complicated by certain classes of assets. According to the NY estate law, when we pass there are two types of assets, probatable and non-probatable. A probatable asset is simply any asset left solely within the decedent’s name at the time of their death. These assets are distributed as per the decedent’s will during the probate process, hence probatable. Non-probatable assets are assets with joint beneficiaries and/or assets left in trust for someone. These assets pass outside the decedent’s estate, directly to the joint account holder or beneficiary at the time of the decedent’s death. Therefore, these assets pass outside the probate process and are non-probatable.
In Matter of Buxbaum, it was decided that a husband who had murdered his wife was not entitled to the non-probatable proceeds of her $1,000,000.00 life insurance policy. Nursing home magnate Helmuth Buxbaum, was a churchgoing entrepreneur who had amassed $22 million in the lucrative nursing home business. However, Mr. Buxbaum also had a weakness for certain elicit activities that included drugs, gambling and prostitutes. In an attempt to abruptly end his marriage Mr. Buxbaum had his wife shot in the head three times. Mr. Buxbaum was later convicted of planning the murder and hiring a shooter to kill his wife. Mr. Buxbaum was later sentenced to 25 years in prison. His estate lawyers argued, as the surviving beneficiary of his wife’s $1,000,000.00 life insurance policy, Mr. Buxbaum was entitled to its proceeds. The Court disagreed ruling that one who perpetrates the murder of another cannot inherit the proceed of either probatable or non-probatable assets resulting from that act.
As a NY probate lawyer I can tell you that murder is rarely utilized as a means to inherit another’s estate. But that is not to say that it does not happen. There have been NY estate cases that I have personally litigated which involved this very issue. However, from my experience as a NY probate lawyer, I see most opportunists utilizing the less obvious method of undue influence to steal estate assets. While murder, the taking of another’s life, is the ultimate way to victimize another, undue influence is much more pervasive and harder to identify but can be no less devastating. While recent NY Surrogate’s Court rulings have taken a hard line approach, preventing participants from benefiting from murder, intentional or unintentional, the estate law concerning undue influence remains nebulous. Unfortunately, both NY estate cases involving murder and undue influence are usually perpetrated by a close relative or someone in a confidential relationship of trust.
If you think a family member may have been taken advantage of by an opportunistic relative or friend it never hurts to ask the opinion of an experienced NY will contest lawyer to see if it amounts to undue influence or fraud. Feel free to call the NY will contest lawyers at The Law Offices of Jason W. Stern & Associates for a free consultation at (718) 261-2444. Our Queens estate lawyers have 50 years of combined NY estate law experience drafting and probating the wills for families like yours in the counties of Queens, New York, Kings, Bronx, Westchester, Rockland, Nassau, Richmond, Orange, Dutchess as well as in the State of New Jersey.