By Jason Stern
While it may sound crazy, a NY estate lawyer familiar with the probate laws of New York will encounter this issue from time to time. While the answer to this conundrum may seem intuitive Courts have historically taken an unorthodox approach to this question.
The monumental estate case in NY, Estate of Wirth, involved a husband who killed his wife and was subsequently found not guilty by reason of insanity. The husband then sought his distributive share of his wife’s inheritance after the murder. While the Surrogate’s Court in this landmark case ruled one could not profit from an estate if they are convicted of wrongdoing, the husband who murdered his wife was found not guilty by reason of insanity. Therefore the Wirth Court allowed the husband to inherit despite having murdered his wife. However this Court did go on to state that public policy dictates that no party should be permitted to profit by their own fraud, wrong or crime perpetrated on another. In the end the Court adopted the New Jersey Surrogate’s Court approach which provides an exception for wrongdoers who are found insane at the time they committed the act thereby entitling them to inherit.
Last week I was present in the Nassau County Surrogate’s Courtroom when the Honorable Edward McCarty III, read his new Surrogate’s law into effect. In 2008 Leatrice Brewer sliced the throats of her three children and drowned them in a bathtub before attempting to commit suicide herself by jumping out her two-story window. In the 2009 NY criminal trial of Leatrice Brewer, she was found not guilty by reason of insanity. Leatrice Brewer contended that she was attempting to kill her children in an effort to save them from an evil curse.
Later Leatrice Brewer successfully brought suit against the County of Nassau on behalf of the three children she murdered. Ms. Brewer sued Social Services for their failure to remove the children from her care prior to the triple murder. As such a Nassau County jury found it appropriate to award Leatrice Brewer the sum of $350,000.00 for the County’s failure to remove her three children from her care. As a NY estate lawyer I can tell you the next question is probably the most disturbing part of this case.
Who gets the $350,000.00?
This of course becomes an estate issue for the Nassau County Surrogate’s Court to decide. Here Surrogate McCarty III was faced with a problem. Does he follow the existing NY case law whereby Leatrice Brewer inherits the $350,000.00 awarded on behalf of the estates of her three children or does he throw out the old law and make new law?
In a very poignant and well thought out decision Honorable McCarty III decided that the existing NY estate law on this issue did not sit well with him. As such Judge McCarty III chose to create new law which he coined the Brewer Law. Citing the principles of equity, upon which all other laws flow, he reasoned, “you cannot come to the table of equity with unclean hands”. Meaning, first and foremost, the laws of equity in the Surrogate’s Court of the State of New York dictate that one should not benefit from their wrongdoing even if they were adjudicated insane. As a NY estate lawyer I felt as if a moral dilemma had finally been corrected.
However, Judge McCarty III’s role in this case is not over. The next NY estate law quandary posed by this case is the same as the last, who gets the $350,000.00? If you can believe it the answer to this question becomes even more complex. Since the Surrogate ruled Leatrice Brewer can not inherit by reason of equity, should the fathers of the children inherit?
The answer is probably not. Each of the two fathers of the children murdered by Leatrice Brewer abandoned their children at birth and had no interaction with them. Provided, this Court deems each of these fathers of the slain children ineligible recipients of their children’s estates by reason of abandonment the NY estate laws of intestacy dictate. Under the NY intestacy estate law either aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews or cousins of the three slain children will step up to inherit. Ironically, the proceeds of the $350,000.00 sum will pass to total strangers the three young persons probably never met with the help of a NY estate lawyer in a NY kinship proceeding.
While you may think these cases are rarities in the world of NY estate law you would be mistaken. As a NY estate lawyer, I come across many instances of wrongdoing by those who seek to benefit. In our August 19th blog I cited the Estate of Abe Hirschfeld, the New York billionaire. His son was accused of using undue influence to coerce his father into leaving him his entire estate and pushing him down a flight of stairs to his death. Less obvious instances of wrongdoing will pop up in NY estates from time to time. When these events do occur it is important for the NY estate lawyer to recognize them sooner rather later.
If you or a loved one are thinking about planning their estate and would like a free consultation with a NY estate lawyer feel free to call The Law Offices of Jason W. Stern & Associates at (718) 261-2444. Our Queens estate lawyers have nearly 45 years of combined NY estate law experience drafting and probating the wills for families like yours in the counties of Queens, New York, Kings, Bronx, Westchester, Rockland, Nassau, Orange and Dutchess.