As articulated by the Court of Appeals in Riggs v Palmer, the so-called “slayer rule” provides that “[n]o one shall be permitted to profit by his own fraud, or to take advantage of his own wrong, or to found any claim upon his own iniquity, or to acquire property by his own crime” (Riggs v Palmer, 115 NY 506, 511 ). Although “[t]his maxim is generally applied in cases where one intentionally murders another person or causes the death of another person by some felonious or other intentional or reckless criminal conduct”, its application “is not always straightforward” (Matter of Wright, 859 NYS2d 864, 866 [Sur Ct, Westchester County 2008]).
Nowhere is that more clear than in a case that is developing in Suffolk County. According to published reports, after choking his mother-in-law Dianne Edwards (“Dianne”) to death, Brandon Pallidino was convicted and, ultimately, sentenced to prison for his crime (see Carol MacGowan, “Fight Over Estate Continues After Sentencing”, Newsday, Feb. 3, 2011). Adding insult to injury, however, it appears that Brandon is now seeking to take a substantial portion of Diane’s estate, as a beneficiary of his deceased wife Deanna Palladino’s (“Deanna”) estate (see id.).
Apparently, Dianne died, testate, bequeathing her entire estate to her daughter, Deanna (see id.). Although Deanna survived Dianne, she died of an accidental drug overdose in February, 2010, leaving no will (see id.). Under normal circumstances, Brandon, as Deanna’s surviving spouse (with no issue), would inherit Deanna’s entire estate, including any bequests that she received from Dianne (see EPTL 4-1.1[a]).
Of course, these are not normal circumstances. Since Brandon killed Dianne, the critical question for the Surrogate’s Court may be whether New York’s slayer rule precludes Brandon from inheriting Dianne’s property, not as a direct beneficiary of Dianne’s estate, but, indirectly, through Deanna’s estate. While standards of common sense and decency would seem to render this an easy question to answer in the negative, the issue is not clear-cut, as the slayer rule may not apply to Brandon’s situation. There appears to be support for the proposition that the slayer rule only applies when there is “[a] direct causal relationship between the unworthy act (the killing of the decedent) and the potential for inheritance” (Richard Lewis Brown, “Undeserving Heirs? – The Case of the “Terminated” Parent”, 40 U. Rich. L. Rev. 547, 560 ; see also Matter of Parente, NYLJ, 6/10/2010, at 44, col. 3 [Sur. Ct., Nassau County] [finding Riggs inapplicable, as the victims’ killing did not inure “to the wrongdoer’s benefit as a beneficiary of” the victims’ estates]).
Thus, Riggs may not preclude Brandon from inheriting, indirectly, what was once Dianne’s property, as there is no direct causal link between Dianne’s death and his inheriting from Deanna’s estate. Although the slayer rule would certainly disqualify Brandon from being a beneficiary of Diane’s estate, Brandon is not due to inherit any of Diane’s property in that capacity, but rather, indirectly, as the sole intestate distributee of Deanna, her post-deceased daughter.
However, a far more just result would seem to be one that prevents Brandon from receiving any of Dianne’s property, even indirectly as a beneficiary of Deanna’s estate. Legislative action may be required to bring about such a result.
Based upon the reports published in newspapers over the past several weeks, it appears that this case is on course to be litigated in the Surrogate’s Court. While reasonable minds can disagree as to what is just, the matter is certain to raise interesting questions not often dealt with in the context of a Surrogate’s Court proceeding, leaving the parties sharply divided as to the proper result.