Recent developments in the Martin Tankleff murder case have captivated court observers in New York and attracted the attention of national news media outlets. For the most part, the observers have focused their attention on issues of criminal law, like newly-discovered evidence and the reliability of allegedly false confessions. Yet, the case also has potential trusts and estates-related consequences.
This much we know: Mr. Tankleff’s parents were killed on September 7, 1988 (see People v Tankleff, 49 A.D.3d 160, 162-64 [2d Dep’t 2007]). After an investigation, the police arrested Mr. Tankleff for murdering his parents, prosecutors tried him for the murders, and a Suffolk County jury convicted him of the offenses (id.). In the days, months, and years that followed, Mr. Tankleff and his legal team launched an exhaustive campaign to overturn his convictions on the basis of newly-discovered evidence, which Mr. Tankleff asserted established his innocence (id.). The Appellate Division, Second Department, issued an Order vacating Mr. Tankleff’s judgments of conviction in December 2007, id. at 183, and prosecutors elected against retrying Mr. Tankleff in June 2008 (see Luis Perez, “AG won’t retry Tankleff – or any other suspects,” Newsday, June 30, 2008).
Presumably, Mr. Tankleff did not inherit from his father’s estate (see Brian Harmon et al., “Martin Tankleff’s half-sister: he did it,” N.Y. Daily News, Jan. 4, 2008). Indeed, although court records pertaining to the settlement of that estate were sealed, In re Tankleff, NYLJ, Nov. 7, 1991, at 24, col. 5 (Sur. Ct., Suffolk County), reports indicate that Mr. Tankleff’s half-sister, Shari Mistretta, received the assets of the estate, which have been valued as high as $3,500,000 by the media (see Harmon, supra). This is because the “slayer rule,” which the Court of Appeals first applied more than a century ago in Riggs v Palmer, 70 Sickels 506 (1889), precludes a decedent’s intentional killer from profiting from the decedent’s estate (see In re Bach’s Estate, 53 AD2d 612, 612 [2d Dep’t 1976]). Further, an amendment to the Estates, Powers, and Trusts Law, which, if enacted, would codify the “slayer rule,” is currently pending before the New York State Senate’s Judiciary Committee.
Despite the fact that Mr. Tankleff’s convictions were overturned and prosecutors decided not to retry him, Mr. Tankleff may not be able to inherit from his father’s estate for a variety of reasons. First, although prosecutors ultimately decided not to retry Mr. Tankleff because they were unsure whether they could prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt in a criminal proceeding, the question remains whether Ms. Mistretta would be able to oppose Mr. Tankleff’s petition to recover shares of the father’s estate by establishing that Mr. Tankleff killed his parents under the less exacting standard of proof applicable in Surrogate’s Court proceedings. Second, there may not be any estate assets left, now that approximately two decades have passed since Mr. Tankleff’s father was killed and his estate was distributed to Ms. Mistretta. See Harmon, supra. Third, the Surrogate’s Court proceedings pertaining to the estate may have been terminated by stipulation of settlement, which may be difficult, though possible, to vacate (see id.; see also Tankleff, supra).
Absent additional information, it is impossible to say whether or not Mr. Tankleff is entitled to inherit from his father’s estate in light of the slayer rule. What we can, however, take away from this is the number of legal and practical considerations which might inspire or discourage Mr. Tankleff from pursuing estate-related claims or even an accounting against Ms. Mistretta.