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What is the slayer statute? Estate of Danishefsky Covlin

9
Jan

By Jason Stern

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Any NYC estate lawyer can tell you that the two most emotionally charged types of cases are divorce cases and NYC estate litigation.  Just like any member of the NYPD will tell you that the most volatile police calls are domestic disturbances.  Well the same is true for NYC estate lawyers.  When we as lawyers step inside a contested NY estate we are often entering a domestic dispute, a war zone, between family members with long standing hostilities who are acting anything but reasonably.  Occasionally, not often but occasionally, those hostilities can include bad acts, not limited to assault or even murder.

In fact murder is such an issue in NY estate litigation, that the legislature and courts developed the need to draft and enforce the “slayer statute”.   According to the “slayer statute”, what NYC estate lawyers know as EPTL 5-4.3(a), a person is disqualified from inheriting any portion of estate proceeds derived from a death they either directly or indirectly caused, excluding accidents. In other words nobody shall be permitted to profit by his or her own fraud or wrongful act to acquire property by their own crime.  And historically, this included murder which comes up from time to time.  In prior years the slayer statute did not include involuntary acts of murder such as involuntary manslaughter or persons found not guilty by reason of insanity.  But in the last decade NY’s Surrogate Courts have expanded upon the slayer statute in cases such as Matter of Demesyeux, 42 Misc. 3d. 730 (Surr. Crt Nassau County 2013) to include acts that were not premeditated or intentional.  The NY estate law is no stranger to the slayer statute which dates back to the historic 1889 case of Riggs v. Palmer, 115 NY 506 (1889). The Court in Riggs., denied the decedent’s grandson his half of his grandfather’s probatable NY estate after the grandson was convicted of the murder of said grandfather.  

Estate of Danishefsky Covlin

While Shele Danishefsky Covlin and her stock broker husband Roderick Covlin were in the midst of a divorce, Shele’s husband took his own apartment down the hall in the same Manhattan Coop so he could continue co-parenting their 9 year old daughter Anna and small son.  However, when 47 year old executive and mother of two, Shele Danishefsky Covlin was found dead in the bath tub of her Manhattan apartment even the most seasoned NYC estate lawyers could not have predicted the subsequent series of events.  In her will, Shele Danishefsky Covlin named her husband 50% beneficiary of her $4 million dollar estate.  However, in spite of her recent separation from husband Roderick, Shele had a meeting with her attorney to remove him from her estate plan.  Shele would never make it to that appointment as her lifeless body was found just hours before that meeting.  Initially assumed to be a drowning by the medical examiner the NYPD requested an autopsy of Shele’s remains.  This request for an autopsy was denied by Shele’s parents who are orthodox Jews and do not believe in desecrating remains through autopsy.  Suspecting foul play, NY estate lawyers for Shele’s estate insisted on a temporary hold on the proceeds of Shele’s estate until which time a police investigation regarding the facts and circumstances of her death could be completed.  Subsequently, Shele’s parents began to hear rumblings of their son-in-law’s transgressions, including his alleged gambling, drug and escort addictions giving them reason to suspect Roderick of foul play.   Thereafter, Shele’s parents had a change of heart granting the medical examiner permission to exhume their daughter’s body.  Once performed Shele’s autopsy revealed she had either been choked or strangled to death, presumably at the hands of her husband.  To make matters worse, stock broker husband Roderick allegedly began to confess to his then girlfriend about the murder of his wife.  Some of these conversations were allegedly tape recorded by Roderick’s girlfriend leading to his indictment in the murder of his wife Shele.  Upon learning about the NYPD’s renewed interest in his wife’s murder, Roderick did something even more incredible.  Roderick allegedly falsified an electronic note on his daughter’s computer using her account, admitting to her role in mother Shele’s death. In this note, Roderick allegedly claims that his then 9 year old daughter Shele became angry with her 47 year mother and pushed her into the tub breaking her mother’s neck. Essentially, a panicked Roderick was now allegedly setting up his own nine year old daughter for his wife’s murder.  As of the date of this article, Roderick will now stand trial next week in Manhattan Criminal Court in the murder of his wife Shele Danishefsky Covlin.  

As a NYC estate lawyer I can tell you that if convicted, the slayer statute will be applied pursuant to EPTL 5-4.3(a) of the NY estate law and as a result Roderick Covlin would not see a dime of his late wife’s $4 million dollar estate.  I wish I could tell you that monsters like this do not exist and that this is an isolated incident but that would be contrary to my two decades of experience as a NY estate litigator.  Any NY estate lawyer will tell you that the single greatest opportunity to steal vast amounts of money arises at the end of our lives through our NY estates.  While most cases do not rise to the level of murder and the subsequent attempt to frame a nine year old to evade capture, there are many bad actors waiting for opportunities to defraud NYC estates nonetheless.  Quite often the best way to prevent such cases from occurring is through vigilance and the updating of your NYC estate plan.  

 If you think a family member may have been taken advantage of by an opportunistic relative or friend it never hurts to ask the opinion of an experienced NY will contest lawyer to see if it amounts to undue influence or fraud.  Feel free to call the NY will contest lawyers at The Law Offices of Jason W. Stern & Associates for a free consultation at (718) 261-2444. Our Queens estate lawyers have 50 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, Richmond, Orange and Dutchess.

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