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Issues In NY Criminal Law--Vol. 6, #1©

Issue: Effect of Homicide Conviction on Inheritance Rights

Consider the situation where one person kills another; the killer is named in the other’s will or insurance policy, or would have inherited as a “distributee. “ Should that person be allowed to receive property?


There is a legal maxim that no one should be allowed to profit from his own wrongdoing. The killer is therefore barred from inheriting. This holds true whether the person would have received through testacy or intestacy. The seminal case in New York State is Riggs v Palmer, 115 NY 506 (1889).


Where the sole beneficiary of a will was convicted of murdering the maker of the will, that beneficiary was disqualified from receiving anything under the will. Estate of Kirkman, 120 Misc2d 278, 465 NYS2d 690 (Surr. Ct. 1983). Further, since the murderer was also a distributee, the court held that all other distributees would inherit.


The court will apply a legal fiction, treating the killer as if he predeceased the decedent for purposes of inheritance.


Indictment

What is the legal effect of the pendency of a criminal charge? Where the wife was indicted for her husband's murder, the public administrator was appointed the estate’s fiduciary. The court held that the wife was properly restrained from access to joint assets pending resolution of her charges.


Under EPTL 4-1.6, a joint tenant of a bank account is not entitled to any monies, except for those contributed by that person. As to real estate jointly held, which does not come within the EPTL, this was properly restrained from being transferred or encumbered. In re Kiejliches, 292 AD2d 530, 740 NYS2d 85 (2d Dept 2002).


Effect of criminal conviction

The doctrine of “collateral estoppel” bars a person convicted of intentional homicide from relitigating the issue. Matter of Strauss, 121 AD2d 549, 504 NYS2d 32 (2d Dept 1986). The effect of the conviction, whether after trial or by guilty plea, is the same. Estate of Savage, 175 Misc2d 880, 670 NYS2d 716 (Surr. Ct. 1998).


Conviction of lesser charge

Various levels of homicide are set forth in Penal Law article 125. In addition, a person can be civilly negligent for causing another’s death without that rising to the level of a crime.


A conviction for murder or manslaughter 1st degree acts as a bar. A manslaughter 2nd conviction also acts as a bar. In re Wells’s Will, 76 Misc2d 458, 350 NYS2d 114 (Surr. Ct. 1973).


Negligent homicide, however, does not prevent the person from inheriting. See In re Wells’s Will, supra (dictum); “Homicide and Succession to Property,” 68 Mich. L. Rev. 65 (1969).


“When the killer has been convicted of intentional homicide (murder or voluntary manslaughter) no hearing is probably necessary. In all other cases a hearing must be had to establish a forfeiture i.e. proof that the beneficiary intentionally and feloniously took the life of the insured. When there has been a conviction of a crime other than intentional homicide proof may be offered of the criminal conviction but a full hearing is required.” In re Loud’s Estate, 70 Misc2d 1026, 334 NYS2d 969 (Surr. Ct. 1972) (insurance policy).


Insanity and other defenses

Where the issue of insanity (or other defenses such as accident or self-defense) was not raised at the criminal trial, the convicted defendant is barred by collateral estoppel from raising it in the estate proceeding. Estate of Kirkman, 120 Misc2d 278, 465 NYS2d 690 (Surr. Ct. 1983). Cf. Matter of Bobula, 19 NY2d 818, 280 NYS2d 152 (1967) (murder-suicide; savings account and savings bonds).

However, a person who was mentally ill when he killed the decedent may still inherit. In re Lupka’s Estate, 56 Misc2d 677, 289 NYS2d 705 (Surr. Ct. 1968).


Effect of acquittal

With a criminal defendant who is acquitted in the criminal action, that acquittal does not bar Surrogate’s Court from disqualifying. There is a lower burden of proof in a civil case. Matter of Barrett, 224 AD2d 415, 637 NYS2d 751 (2d Dept 1996) (insurance policy).


No criminal charge filed

Similarly, where no criminal charges were brought, but it is established that the beneficiary killed the decedent, disqualification occurs. See In re Miller’s Estate, 17 Misc2d 508, 186 NYS2d 847 (Surr. Ct. 1959).


Juvenile

Where the killer was not prosecuted as an adult but as a juvenile delinquent, disqualification was granted. In re Sengillo’s Estate, 206 Misc. 751, 134 NYS2d 800 (Surr. Ct. 1954).


If the convicted defendant himself dies before the criminal appeal is decided and the conviction is thus “abated,” the conviction still has probative effect. Will of Pikull, 192 AD2d 259, 601 NYS2d 113 (1st Dept 1993).


Effect on right of election

Where one spouse kills the other, the survivor’s statutory “right of election” is forfeited. In re Lonergan’s Estate, 63 NYS2d 307 (Surr. Ct. 1946).


Nor may the wrongdoer’s estate benefit from the wrongful act. Bierbrauer v Moran, 244 App Div 87, 279 NYS 176 (4th Dept 1935). Thus, in a murder-suicide between husband and wife, the estate of the killer (who survived his wife by three minutes) was barred from inheriting. Estates of Covert, 279 AD2d 48, 717 NYS2d 392 (3d Dept 2000), affd 97 NY2d 68, 735 NYS2d 879 (2001). In another case, the son-killer was treated as if he predeceased his parents, thus the killer’s children (the only other direct descendants of the parents) took under the will. Matter of Dorsey, 161 Misc2d 258, 613 NYS2d 335 (Surr. Ct. 1994).


Insurance policies

The rule in estate law applies as well to insurance policies. A person who kills the insured is not entitled to take under any insurance policy. In re Loud’s Estate, 70 Misc2d 1026, 334 NYS2d 969 (Surr. Ct, 1972); In re Byers’s Will, 208 Misc2d 916, 144 NYS2d 68 (Surr. Ct. 1955). See Estates of Covert, 279 AD2d 48, 717 NYS2d 392 (3d Dept 2000); In re Miller’s Estate, 17 Misc2d 508, 186 NYS2d 847 (Surr. Ct. 1959).


Real estate

A husband and wife own real property as “tenants by the entirety.” Upon the death of one spouse, the other spouse automatically becomes owner of the property by operation of law.


Where a man killed his wife, the court found that the real property rule did not apply: the husband could not take his deceased wife’s property, even though it would have passed to him, not by will or intestacy, but by operation of law. However, the man was still entitled to his own half of the property. Estate of Mathew, 270 AD2d 416, 706 NYS2d 432 (2d Dept 2000); Civil Rights Law § 79-b; 42 ALR 3d 1116.

 

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