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Testamentary instruments are strictly construed so as to give full effect to the testator's clear intent.
A husband's and wife's joint will provided for the disposition of their property, mainly to their families, upon the death of the surviving spouse. The husband murdered the wife, and the executrix sought direction in distributing their property. The trial court applied the doctrine of Riggs v Palmer (115 NY 506), which held that a wrongdoer could not benefit from his crime to preclude distribution of property to the husband's survivors, but an intermediate appellate court protected the husband's survivors as innocent parties, employing a fiction that the wife survived the husband and then ordering distribution under the terms of the joint will. Appellant beneficiaries of the murdered wife’s estate appealed.
Did the husband’s crime mandate the disinheritance of the husband’s heirs and distributees, thereby negating their entitlement to an express testamentary bequest made in the victim’s will?
The court affirmed the order, giving effect to the will. According to the court, where a victim’s will made bequests to the wrongdoer's family--innocent distributees--their status as legatees under the victim's will was not vitiated, and they were not disinherited by virtue of their familial relationship to the wrongdoer. Thus, any bequests by the wife to the husband passed directly into the residue, for distribution according to the will. Joint property passed to the spouses' respective estates as property held in common, and insurance and pension proceeds passed to contingent beneficiaries.