Why you cannot murder someone and inherit their NY Estate: NY estate law’s slayer statute; Estates of Sherman

As a NY estate lawyer with more than two decades of NY estate litigation experience I am no stranger to greed.  Occasionally, not often but occasionally, that greed rises to fraud, deceit and even murder.  Just days before their bodies were discovered in their indoor swimming pool of their mega mansion, billionaires Barry and wife Honey Sherman had been discussing pledging the bulk of their $3 billion dollar pharmaceutical empire to The Bill and Melinda Gates’ Charitable Foundation.  

While lifelong philanthropists, with a history of $200 million dollar donations to Mt. Sinai Hospitals on behalf of sick children, charity was nothing new to the couple. The Bill and Melinda Gates’ Foundation includes only the world’s richest donors including but not limited to the likes of its founders Bill and Melinda Gates, Mackenzie Bezos, Warren Buffett as well as the late Paul Allen among many others.  The “Giving Pledge” as it’s called takes charitable contributions to a whole new level with donors customarily donating up to 90% of their wealth to various charitable organizations.  These contributions while immeasurable in terms of philanthropic aid for science, research, disease and poverty prevention, would also greatly reduce the size of their children’s inheritance.  

The 2017 murders of the billionaires remain unsolved.  In addition to being a philanthropist Barry Sherman was also known as cut throat businessman with a litigious reputation.  At the time of his death Sherman had more than 150 open lawsuits pending.  Unclear who killed the Shermans and why, one of the main motives for whoever murdered the couple would be financial gain.  Were the Sherman’s children upset with their parents upcoming plan to pledge the bulk of their fortune to the “Giving Pledge” or could it have been a disgruntled associate who came out on the wrong end of a deal? Unfortunately we may never know who specifically killed the Shermans or why.  But murdering for the financial gain of inheritance is not as rare as you would think. 

Recently, in Chicago an aspiring artist named, Qawmane Wilson was convicted in the murder for hire of his own mother.  Prosecutors successfully claimed Wilson hired gunman Eugene Spencer to gun down and stab his own mother, a nurse, to death in order to inherit her estate to fund his lifestyle as an aspiring recording artist. Wilson who was sentenced to 99 years in prison had been seen making videos prior to his arrest handing out hundred dollar bills to “fans”.  Presumably, the hundred dollar bills which Wilson had removed from his mother’s bank accounts after her untimely death. As a result of Wilson’s indirect involvement with the murder of his mother Wilson is ineligible to receive any portion of her estate.  Considering Wilson is now serving out his 99 year long prison sentence, his inheritance is purely academic. Unfortunately, experienced NY estate lawyers will tell you this happens often enough for the NY estate law to have special law enacted  for such instances known as, The Slayer Statute.  

The Slayer Statute

Pursuant to the NY estate law, as stated in the land mark case Matter of Demesyeux, 42 Misc. 3d 730 (Nass. Surr. Crt 2013) no one shall be permitted to profit by his or her own fraud, or to take advantage of his or her own wrongdoing, or to be found guilty of any claim upon their own inequity or to acquire property by their own crime. This principal appears to be an equity maxim ‘Ex Turpi Causa Non Oritur Actio.’  Or in other words that a person may not rely upon their own violations of law as a basis for a claim.” 

Moreover the court in Demesyeux went on to state,  “one who takes the life of another should not be permitted to profit from their own wrongdoing and shall be barred from inheriting from the person slain.”  This doctrine of the NY estate law also known as the Slayer Statute states, there is no vesting of the estate for the wrongdoer because the crime precludes the wrongdoer from becoming a distributee (heir).  As such, if someone murders another and is found guilty of facilitating that murder either directly or indirectly the NY estate law will deem them predeceased, legally treating the wrongdoer as if they died before the victim thus disinheriting the person from any and all share of the NY estate.  

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 60 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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