By Jason Stern
As a NY estate lawyer with nearly twenty years of experience litigating challenging NY estate matters I am amazed at how often the issue of murder arises. For example, as a NY estate lawyer I can tell you that a convicted murderer is deemed unfit to act as a fiduciary, otherwise known as an executor, when there is a will, or Administrator when there is not a will. As such, a felon is disqualified from serving as fiduciary under the NY estate law, except where the felon has served his time and is granted a Relief from Civil Disability. But by far the main issue involving murder under the NY estate law is can you murder someone and still inherit their estate?
Estate of Schwartz
On July 2, 2011, the 45-year-old Jonathan Schwartz was at home with his 67-year old mother Barbara Schwartz. Barbara Schwartz had been attempting to limit her 45-year-old schizophrenic son’s smoking habit to two packs a day and restricting his soda consumption. This set off the decedent’s son, Jonathan Schwartz who picked up a kitchen knife and stabbed his sleeping mother to death in her bedroom. Jonathan proceeded to pick up the telephone, calmly dialing 911, and informing the emergency operator what he had done. Exactly, two minutes later Jonathan Schwartz redialed 911 informing the operator that his mom had committed suicide, subsequently planting the murder weapon in her lifeless hand.
Barbara Schwartz was the daughter of a wealthy financier, Norman Weiden and inherited a substantial fortune after his passing. Barbara Schwartz left behind two sons, Jonathan Schwartz and Kenneth Schwartz, from her marriage with her first husband Steven Schwartz. After Barbara’s untimely passing it was learned that her sizable fortune amassed by her late father had been squandered by her second husband, Barton Fischler’s bad land deals. Upon unearthing the fact that his mother’s vast fortune had dwindled down to a paltry $6.4 million dollars by his step-father, Barabara’s other son Kenneth Schwartz decided to take his own life.
In July of 2014, Jonathan Schwartz was tried for the stabbing murder of his mother, Barbara Schwartz and was found not guilty by reason of insanity. Jonathan was then remanded to a psychiatric institution.
Who inherits Barbara Schwartz’s $6.4 million dollar estate under the NY estate law?
As a NY estate lawyer I can tell you it all depends. You do not have to be a NY estate lawyer to appreciate the complexity involved in the Schwartz estate. First of all, Barbara Schwartz died intestate, without a will, which under the NY estate laws makes matters even more convoluted. Unfortunately for those who die in New York without a will, their estate is not afforded the benefits of a probate proceeding. Thus for intestate estates, where there is no will, the estate is forced into Administration which is often chaos. Under normal circumstances, Barbara Schwartz’s Estate would be passed to her next of kin, her two sons.
Except we know Kenneth Schwartz took his own life shortly after Barbara Schwartz’s death, upon learning of his step father’s plundering of assets. Kenneth Schwartz was not married and had no issue, children. As such, Kenneth Schwartz’s half of his mother’s $6.4 million estate will go to his biological father Steven Schwartz as his next of kin. The remaining $3.2 million portion of Barbara Schwartz’s Estate is not so clear cut. As Barbara’s next of kin, Jonathan Schwartz is legally entitled to his portion of his mother’s estate but for the fact he murdered her.
Now this is where NY estate lawyers will have diverging opinions. Under the old NY estate law, and pursuant to Matter of Wirth, anyone who knowingly murders another forfeits their right to benefit from their victim’s estate, paying close attention to the word knowingly. NY estate lawyers in Matter of Wirth argued that because their client had been found not guilty of killing his wife by reason of insanity, it was not adjudicated that the husband knowingly harmed his wife. Therefore, under Matter of Wirth, which is endearingly known as the slayer law, the husband was entitled to inherit his share of his wife’s sizable estate after being found not guilty by reason of insanity for her murder. However, other NY estate lawyers would argue that pursuant to Matter of Brewer, one should not be allowed to ever inherit for bad acts, either intentional or unintentional under the NY estate law. And therein lies the problem confronted by the NY estate law in the within Estate of Barbara Schwartz. Recently Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Geoffrey Wright sided with the original interpretation of the NY slayer law granting a $3.2 million-dollar portion of the estate to the decedent’s murderer Jonathan Schwartz.
But this case is far from resolved. The decedent’s first husband Steven Schwartz is fighting to have this decision reviewed under the NY estate law by the Surrogate’s Court of New York County. Steven Schwartz is arguing that his son Jonathan forfeited his entitlement to any portion of Barbara Schwartz’s estate when he murdered her. As a NY estate lawyer I am sure Steven Schwartz would also like to avoid Jonathan’s $3.2-million-dollar inheritance from being consumed by Medicaid during his son’s incarceration in the State’s psychiatric facility. So that could be part of Steven’s motivation for asserting these novel legal arguments under the NY estate law.
In any event it is unclear as to who will ultimately inherit the remaining $3.2 million-dollar portion of the Barbara Schwartz Estate. If the Court interprets the NY estate law pursuant to Matter of Wirth, Jonathan Schwartz will receive his half of his murdered mother’s estate which would ultimately be paid to Medicaid for his care. Or will the Surrogate’s Court side with Matter of Brewer determining that Jonathan Schwartz forfeited his inheritance when he murdered his mother?
Historically speaking, Surrogate’s Courts have varied on their interpretations of the NY estate law’s Slayer Rule and as a NY estate lawyer I expect nothing less in the Matter of Schwartz. While her murder was unfortunate and probably unforeseeable, had Barbara Schwartz executed a NY attorney drafted and supervised will, much of this economic hardship could have been prevented.
The only tragedy worse than a death, is a death that creates an economic hardship for loved ones. Should you or a loved one wish to speak with a NYC estate lawyer about their estate, feel free to call us at (718) 261-2444 to speak with an experienced estate lawyer for a free consultation.
Our offices have been successfully drafting wills, probating and litigating NY estates for New Yorkers in the Counties of New York, Queens, Nassau, Suffolk, Bronx, Richmond, Westchester, Orange, Rockland and Duchess for over fifty combined years.