Can you murder someone and still inherit their estate? Matter of Demesyeux

There answer is a resounding NO.  There is a long standing belief engrained within the NY estate law that one should not benefit from the estate of someone they killed.  In fact, there is an entire body of NY estate law called, “The Slayer Statute” discouraging individuals from murdering others for inheritance purposes.  This doctrine dates back to 1889 where it was applied in the landmark case Riggs v. Palmer.  Here a grandson was attempting to inherit his share of his grandfather’s estate.  Unfortunately, the grandson, Mr. Palmer, was found guilty of murdering his grandfather.  The Court in Riggs v. Palmer found that the grandson should be deprived of any benefit from his victim’s will, in this case the grandfather’s, by reason of his murder.  And this is what NY estate lawyers have come to know as the “Slayer Statute” within the NY estate law.  The court in Riggs v. Palmer further stated that no one shall be permitted to profit from an inheritance by his own fraud or wrongdoing.  This construct was recently upheld in several NY estate law decisions which went so far as to broaden the application of its meaning.

In Matter of Edwards, a son-in-law convicted in the murder of his wife’s mother was barred from inheriting from her estate.  Here, the offender killed the decedent while attempting to burglarize her house to purchase drugs.  He was then convicted of murder and sent to jail.  Soon after his conviction his wife, the daughter of the murdered victim, committed suicide.  In a twist of circumstances the murderer would now be deemed the sole distributee of his mother-in-law’s estate by operation of law.  When the daughter’s spouse killed the mother-in-law, the mother-in-law’s estate automatically vested in her daughter.  Then, as soon as his wife committed suicide, the murderer would then stand to inherit his mother-in-law’s estate through the estate of his late wife.  As neither the mother-in-law or wife of the murderer passed with a will, their intestate estates, when there’s no will, would fall to their next of kin.  Very few NY estate lawyers would even appreciate the complexity and irony of these unusual circumstances. The Surrogate’s Court in Matter of Edwards, decided that while the murderer did not stand to benefit directly from his actions but only through his wife’s suicide, which he did not directly contribute to, he could still not be allowed to benefit from his underlying wrongdoing.  The court decided that to permit the benefit in such circumstances would lead to an inequitable result.

In the Matter of Demesyeux, the mother of two 5-year-old children drowned them in a bathtub after social services repeatedly investigated her mental fitness as a mother but failed to remove the children from her care.  Eventually the mother was found not guilty of drowning the two children by reason of insanity and was committed to a psychiatric institution.   A lawsuit was eventually brought on behalf of the deceased children against Nassau County for their negligence in failing to remove the children from their mother’s custody.  The lawsuit was eventually settled for $250,000.00.  As the mother of the murdered children, she stood to inherit the lion share of the settlement.  Additionally, because she was adjudicated not guilty by reason of insanity, she argued the “Slayer Statute”, which only includes intentional acts, insanity is not intentional, should not apply.

The Nassau County Surrogate’s Court disagreed expanding the NY estate law’s “Slayer Statute”.  The Court reasoned that a person found not responsible for a crime due to mental disease or defect who had the ability to recognize that her conduct was morally wrong when undertaken should not financially benefit from that action.  The Court further reasoned, that “While not criminally accountable by virtue of her mental disease or defect, she is accountable in this court by virtue of possessing the requisite mens rea (intent) to cause the deaths of her children. Moreover, here there is a direct causal link between her wrongdoing and the benefit she seeks. The only (estate) funds are composed of the settlement proceeds from the wrongful death action. The fund only exists because of this mother’s wrongful conduct. But for her killing of her two children, there would be no funds to allocate.”

Any NY estate lawyer will tell you that when litigating estate issues the Surrogate’s Courts are courts of equity.  Pursuant to the NY estate law, in Matter of Tran, it was stated that courts have broad discretion when deciding estate matters to ensure the just result is achieved even when the laws do not clearly support the outcome or are mixed at best.  Here, even though the “Slayer Statute” did not specifically encompass the fact patterns in Matter of Edwards and Demesyeux above, the Courts were able and did in fact exercise their broad discretion to apply the law as it saw fit.

If you or someone you love is the heir to a NY estate, you may have rights under the NY estate law.  Feel free to call an experienced NY kinship lawyer at The Law Offices of Jason W. Stern & Associates, at (718) 261-2444 for a free consultation.  Our Queens NY estate lawyers have more than 50 years of combined NY estate law experience handling these often complex NY estate cases for heirs in the counties of Queens, New York, Kings, Bronx, Westchester, Rockland, Nassau, Richmond, Orange, Dutchess as well as in the State of New Jersey.

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