Inheritance, murder and the NY estate law’s slayer statute: Estate of Thomas Gilbert, Sr.

Believe it or not if you practice NY estate litigation long enough the issue of murder is bound to arise at some point in your practice.  While it is said there are two uncontroverted inevitabilities in life death and taxes, some take it upon themselves to hasten the former especially when they stand to inherit a substantial amount from a NY estate, or so they think.  For this reason NY estate law has developed the slayer statute which states, no one shall be permitted to profit by his or her own fraud, or take advantage of their own wrongdoing or to found any claim upon his or her own iniquity, or to acquire property by their own crime.  The principle appears to be an adaptation of the equity maxim, ‘Ex turpi causa non oritur action,’ or in other words, that persons may not rely on their own violations of law as a basis for a claim.  Matter of Demesyeux, 42 Misc. 3d 730 (Surr. Crt. Nass. County 2013).  As such, NY estate law states you cannot inherit from a NY estate if you contributed to or caused that person’s demise.   

As a NY estate lawyer I can tell you the slayer statute is long founded doctrine originally cited in the landmark 1889 decision Riggs v. Plamer, 115 NY 506 (1889), which has been upheld and reaffirmed by many, many such cases.   Within Riggs, NY estate law’s general principle that one should not be permitted to profit by taking the life of another and, in particular, that one who feloniously murders shall not be entitled to share in their victim’s estate.  Absent such a canon of the NY estate law, I have to wonder as a NY estate lawyer how many more crimes would be committed in furtherance of a perpetrator’s interest in their victim’s NY inheritance?  

In fact, in Matter of Demesyeux, as stated above, Surrogate McCarty took the statute a step further to not only include direct acts of murder but indirect acts as well.  Prior to this decision, only persons who had mental intent to harm the other, leading to their victim’s death who could no longer benefit from the NY estate.  This excluded unintentional acts of murder such as manslaughter or murders committed by those found to be legally insane.  However, in Matter of Demesyeux,  the mother who drowned her three children to death, later found not guilty by reason of insanity, was not permitted to inherit from her children’s wrongful death lawsuit against social services. The suit against social services found negligence in failing to remove the children from her custody sooner and awarded $345,000.00 for related damages.  NY estate lawyers argued that the murderer, should not receive the money as she was the cause of the children’s fatalities despite being found not guilty by reason of insanity.  As such, the award was distributed to distant relatives of the victim.  

Estate of Thomas Gilbert, Sr.

The slayer statute, as unsavory as it may seem, is a necessary and more often utilized principle of the NY estate law than one might think.  Hedge fund financier Thomas Gilbert, Sr. was fatally shot and killed in his upscale Beekman Street, Manhattan rental apartment, on January 4, 2015. It did not take long for the NYPD to find his killer.  Thomas Gilbert, Sr., a Harvard Business School graduate had done very well for himself in the hedge fund business, or so people thought. Gilbert’s son, Thomas Gilbert, Jr., enjoyed a life of privilege and leisure, having graduated Princeton University himself.  Despite spending most days at private clubs in the Hamptons, and residing in his expensive Chelsea neighborhood apartment, Gilbert, Jr., could not gain employment.  Gilbert, Jr., had long suffered from severe schizophrenia forcing his father to finance his son’s exploits to give himself legitimacy. 

Thomas Gilbert, Sr., had long sponsored his son’s renouned lifestyle, covering the cost of various elite Manhattan private schools, tuition at Princeton, his Chelsea rental apartment as well as all the other trappings that accompany success.   Meanwhile, documents show that Thomas Gilbert, Sr.’s hedge fund business was deteriorating. Court records show that several years before moving into his Beekman Street rental apartment Gilbert sold his multi-million dollar brownstone home on New York’s Upper East Side to generate liquidity. As a result, Thomas Gilbert Sr., had to cut back on his son’s monthly allowance which infuriated his son.  

Within hours of Gilbert’s murder prosecutors arrested his son.  Prosecutors argued that on January 4, 2015, Gilbert’s son came to his father’s apartment with a .40 caliber pistol he had purchased in Ohio months prior with the intent of killing his father to collect his NY inheritance.  Attorneys for Thomas Gilbert, Jr., first argued that while their client had visited his father that day he was not in the apartment when his father died, and that his father was not murdered but rather died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to his head.

However, investigators for the prosecution stated that upon inspection of Gilbert, Jr.’s Chelsea apartment, .40 caliber shell casings were found matching the shells used in the murder weapon.  Unsuccessful with their initial defense, attorneys for Gilbert, Jr., changed their strategy to the insanity defense, that their client did not know the consequences of his actions on the day he murdered his father.  The insanity defense is sometimes utilized and rarely successful in murder trials where there is evidence that the accused was mentally ill to the point they may not have known the consequences of their actions.  Having suffered from severe mental health issues his entire life it appeared this legal defense could have some merit.  Yet, at trial it was a statement from the decedent’s own wife, Shelly Gilbert, that swayed the jury to find Thomas Gilbert, Jr. guilty of murder.  In the moments before murdering his father, Gilbert Jr., asked his mother to get him a bottle of Coca Cola.  Shelly Gilbert would testify in her son’s murder trial that soda is an item, her son, the killer knew she never stored in her home and would have to leave to procure. Thereby proving that Thomas Gilbert, Jr., went to his parents’ Beekman Street apartment, on January 4, 2015, with the premeditated intent of murdering his father presumably for his portion of his NY inheritance, by sending his mother out for soda.  

On June 28, 2019, after weeks of testimony, Thomas Gilbert, Jr., was convicted in the murder of his hedge fund manager father and namesake, Thomas Gilbert, Sr.  In so doing it appears not only will Thomas Gilbert, Jr., be going to jail but will also forgo any portion of his father’s inheritance he may have been entitled to. While most bad actors utilize such tactics as undue influence or fraud to procure the proceeds of a NY inheritance in rare instances people will resort to physical force.  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 NYC will contest lawyers at The Law Offices of Jason W. Stern & Associates for a free consultation at (718) 261-2444. Our NYC estate lawyers have more than 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, Orange, Dutchess as well as in the State of New Jersey.

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