New York’s “slayer rule” essentially provides that if an individual kills another person, he has automatically forfeited any interest he may have had in his victim’s estate. The rationale is simple – no one should financially benefit from his own crime.
As we have explained in prior posts, this longstanding rule was never codified in New York, but is a common law principle emanating from the nineteenth century Court of Appeals decision in Riggs v Palmer, 115 NY 506 (1889). There, a grandson who intentionally killed his grandfather to ensure his inheritance, was barred from profiting from his own wrong.
Applicability of the rule is generally straightforward, but in certain cases, the lines can become blurred — such as in Matter of Edwards, 2014 NY Slip Op 05873 (2d Dept 2014), where the killer sought to inherit from his victim only indirectly, through the estate of the victim’s post-deceased daughter.
The facts of Edwards are somewhat complex. Brandon Palladino pleaded guilty to manslaughter in connection with the death of his mother-in-law, Dianne Edwards. Brandon’s wife, Deanna, was Dianne’s only child, and the sole beneficiary of her estate. Less than a year after Dianne’s death, Deanna died, intestate, from an accidental drug overdose. Brandon was Deanna’s sole distributee. Accordingly, Brandon stood to inherit his victim’s entire estate indirectly, through his wife’s estate.
In a 2012 decision, Suffolk County Surrogate John M. Czygier, Jr., opined that the slayer rule should be extended upon equitable principles to prohibit Brandon from inheriting in this manner. Recently, the Appellate Division, Second Department, affirmed.
Acknowledging that this was a case of first impression, the Second Department was guided largely by its decision in Campbell v Thomas, 73 AD3d 103 (2d Dept 2010). There, the court held that a surviving spouse forfeited her elective share by her own wrongdoing, having knowingly taken advantage of the decedent in a deathbed marriage for her own pecuniary gain. Although none of the statutory disqualification provisions of EPTL 5-1.2 applied to that situation, the court relied upon principles of equity in making its determination.
The Second Department also relied upon an Illinois case that presented facts analogous to those in Edwards. In In re Estate of Vallerius, 259 Ill App 3d 350 (5th Dist 1994), the decedent was murdered by two of her grandsons. Their mother post-deceased mere months later, leaving them as her only heirs. The Illinois court held that the grandsons could not indirectly benefit from their own crime by inheriting the murdered grandmother’s estate through their mother’s estate, and explained that an intervening estate “should not expurgate the wrong of the murderer or thwart the intent of the legislature that the murderer not profit by his wrong.”
Notably, in upholding Surrogate Czygier’s extension of the slayer rule, the Second Department rejected arguments that (1) Deanna’s inheritance vested immediately in her upon her mother’s death, allowing her to do what she wished with the property, and (2) extension of the slayer rule would raise “a host of enforceability problems” — for example, if the intervening estate resulted from a death that occurred a decade after the wrongful death or murder. The Court explained that it was unpersuaded by hypothetical scenarios and noted that the rule, as extended, would be applied on a fact-specific basis.
In sum, the Second Department opined that Edwards was on point with both Campbell and Vallerius in that there was “a clear causal link between the wrongdoing and the benefits sought.” Accordingly, it affirmed the Surrogate’s Court’s decision to exercise its equitable powers in extending the slayer rule to this case (see SCPA 201).