Most estate attorneys are familiar with the concept of the so-called “slayer rule” whereby a person responsible for the murder of an individual cannot benefit from the murdered individual’s estate. This rule has its genesis in the Court of Appeals decision of Riggs v Palmer, in which the Court stated “[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 [1889]).

Though this equitable rule would appear to be relatively unambiguous in application, questions of its interpretation arise from time to time in the Surrogate’s Courts. Previous entries on this blog have discussed the Suffolk County Surrogate’s Court’s decision to expand the rule by barring a murderer from benefitting not only from his victim’s estate but also the estate of a post-deceased legatee of the victim. 

In an upcoming Nassau County Surrogate’s Court hearing, Surrogate McCarty, on the other hand, will be tasked with assessing the possible boundaries of the slayer rule vis a vis the insanity defense. The hearing, scheduled for August 15, 2013, concerns the case of Leatrice Brewer who in 2008 drowned her three children in a bathtub (see Newsday July 12, 2013). Ms. Brewer admitted to killing her children and in 2010 entered a plea of “not responsible by reason of mental disease or defect” in her criminal proceeding. Thereafter, Innocent Demesyeux, the father of two of the deceased children, received limited letters of administration concerning his children’s estates and sued Nassau County for wrongful death. The suit settled for $250,000 and the father petitioned the Nassau County Surrogate’s Court to compromise the wrongful death action and settle his account. As part of his petition, Mr. Demesyeux has requested that Ms. Brewer be held to have forfeited any interest in her children’s estates by virtue of the slayer rule. The hearing this month will determine this request. 

In a recent pre-hearing decision concerning access to Ms. Brewer’s court files, Surrogate McCarty addressed and previewed some of the issues that will likely be argued in the upcoming hearing (see Matter of Demesyeux, 350391/A, NYLJ 1202598464881, at *1 [Sur Ct, Nassau County, Decided March 29, 2013]). In order to respond to Mr. Demesyeux’s petition, the guardian ad litem assigned to represent Ms. Brewer’s interests in the proceeding attempted to view Ms. Brewer’s Family Court and criminal proceeding records but was told such records were sealed. The guardian ad litem thereafter filed a report in Surrogate’s Court seeking a court-order to unseal the records.

In his decision concerning the guardian ad litem’s request, Surrogate McCarty surveyed the history of the slayer rule under Riggs and its progeny noting that, though there is no express statutory statement of the rule, “numerous cases since Riggs v. Palmer have reaffirmed the applicability of the common-law 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 his victim’s estate” (Matter of Demesyeux at 2). Conversely, the Surrogate noted that application of the rule is not always straightforward and “there is some authority that if the killing was unintentional or accidental, the rule will not be applied” (id. at 3). For instance, the Surrogate cited Matter of Eckhardt (184 Misc 748 [Sur Ct, Orange County 1945]) concerning a somnambulist who killed her husband but was found not to have known the nature and quality of her act.

In connection with the guardian ad litem’s request to view Ms. Brewer’s criminal court files, the Surrogate considered the application of CPL §160.50, which requires that records be sealed if a criminal action is terminated in favor of the accused, ostensibly to spare the accused the social stigma of a criminal prosecution. The question, according to the Surrogate, is whether a termination by reason of an insanity plea can be construed as ‘favorable’ to the accused. Surrogate McCarty quoted the decision of Matter of Anonymous (174 Misc 2d 333 [Sup Ct, Kings County 1997]), which described persons acquitted of a crime via the insanity defense as occupying a special class. Such persons have been proven or have admitted to performance of criminal acts that would ordinarily be subject to punishment. Nevertheless, due to “society’s compassionate belief” that persons with mental defects not be criminally punished, they are spared the penalization they would otherwise justifiably receive. Then again, because they have undisputedly committed criminal acts and are dangers to society, such persons, while spared incarceration, are held in state custody. Balancing the policy considerations of the insanity defense, the court in Anonymous ruled that persons acquitted by reason of an insanity defense have not had their case terminated in their favor. Surrogate McCarty agreed, opining that Ms. Brewer’s criminal records should not be sealed.

No doubt, the upcoming hearing will involve a similar balancing of the equities and policies behind the slayer rule against those behind the insanity defense. Based upon the cases quoted by the Surrogate in Matter of Demesyeux, it appears that the parties will focus on whether or not Ms. Brewer acted with intent and knew the nature of her act. I do not envy the difficult decision Surrogate McCarty will have to make in looking beyond the strong emotional underpinnings of this case.