The Slayer Rule and Indirect Benefits from the Wrong

The Slayer Rule and Indirect Benefits from the Wrong

A slayer, a person who without legal excuse is responsible for the intentional killing of another, is denied any right to benefit from that wrong under our laws. While this rule is statutorily codified in many states, in New York it is a rule of common law rather than statutory law. Riggs v. Palmer, 115 N.Y. 506, 22 N.E. 188 (1886) [enhanced version available to lexis.com subscribers]. New York's slayer rule is founded on general equitable maxims of the common law that "no one should be able to profit by his own fraud, take advantage of his own wrong or found any claim upon his own iniquity, or acquire property by his own crime." Riggs v. Palmer, 115 N.Y. 506, 511, 22 N.E. 188 (1886) [enhanced version available to lexis.com subscribers]. It prohibits a slayer from receiving any benefit from his victim's estate which would accrue under the law of wills, intestacy, and other death benefits. The rationale for the slayer rule is the prevention of unjust enrichment and the unwillingness of the Court to be party to such unjust enrichment. (Restatement (Third) of the Law Property § 8.4).

Consistent with the Riggs doctrine, the slayer rule has been applied to the slayer's estate as well as the slayer himself, preventing the slayer from exercising ultimate control over the disposition of the victim's property. Matter of Covert, 97 N.Y.2d 68, 735 N.Y.S.2d 879, 761 N.E.2d 571 (2001) [enhanced version available to lexis.com subscribers]; Petrie v. Chase Manhattan Bank, 33 N.Y.2d 846, 352 N.Y.S.2d 194, 307 N.E.2d 253 (1973) [enhanced version available to lexis.com subscribers]; Bierbrauer v. Moran, 244 A.D. 87, 279 N.Y.S. 176 (4th Dept 1935) [enhanced version available to lexis.com subscribers].

In a recent case before Surrogate John Czygier in Suffolk County New York, the Court faced the issue of the extension of the Riggs v. Palmer slayer rule to benefits received by the slayer indirectly from his victim's estate through another estate. Matter of Edwards, N.Y.L.J., April 13, 2012, at 35 (Sur. Ct. Suffolk County). Diane Edwards was killed on December 17, 2008 by her son-in-law Brandon Palladino, who was subsequently convicted upon his plea of guilty to a lesser offense and incarcerated for (25) twenty five years. Deanna Palladino, the slayer's wife, was the sole beneficiary under her mother Diane Edwards' will. The sole asset of the estate was the decedent's home. Before Brandon plead guilty, but after her mother's death, Deanna Palladino died intestate as a result of an accidental drug overdose and Brandon was her sole distribute. Brandon designated his mother to receive letters of administration in Deanna's intestate estate. Diane Edwards' house was sold and her fiduciary sought a determination of whom to pay the balance on hand, the estate of Deanna i.e., Brandon Palladino or to Diane Edwards' sister, her only sibling. Brandon's mother argued, among other things, that the sister in seeking to disqualify Brandon was urging a result beyond the tenets of the Riggs v. Palmer Slayer Rule which simply prevents a murderer from inheriting from his victim. In this case she claims that the legacy of Diane Edwards to her daughter Deanna vested upon Diane's death and Brandon's alleged disqualification to inherit from his wife Deanna, must be determined in her estate.

Applying the case of Matter of Macaro, 182 Misc. 2d 625, 699 N.Y.S.2d 634 (Sur. Ct. Westchester County 1999) [enhanced version available to lexis.com subscribers] to these facts, the Surrogate held that by the wrongdoing of Brandon Palladino and the decedent's death therefrom a causal link was created between the wrongdoing and the benefits sought, even though the benefits may be obtained through an intervening estate. In Macaro, the Surrogate found that the convicted murderer of distributes in the estate of a decedent who died intestate could not succeed to the distributees' interest and disqualified the slayer as a distributee of the estate.

Relying on out-of-state cases from Illinois and New Jersey, the Uniform Probate Code § 2-803(f) and the Restatement (Third) of the Law Property § 8.4, Comments (c) and (m), the Court found a common thread that an intervening estate should not expurgate the wrong of the murderer and allow the slayer to profit by his wrong where the benefit is directly traceable to the victim's estate. Matter of Vallerius, 259 Ill. App. 3d 350, 629 N.E.2d 1185 (Ill. App. Ct. 5th Dist. 1994) [enhanced version available to lexis.com subscribers]. However, the Court recognized that a consistent application of this case could be problematic because of a lack of temporal proximity between the wrongful act and the wrongdoer's inheritance of the funds from the original heirs of the victim. The Court also recognized the impossibility of tracing funds through an intervening estate. Nevertheless, the Surrogate determined that such problems should not prevent the application of the equitable maxims of the slayer rule in this case, for to do otherwise would make the Court a facilitator of the slayer.

It is also noteworthy that the Executive Committee of the New York State Bar Association has proposed to the legislature a new EPTL 2-1.15 which would codify the New York Slayer Rule. That proposed statute would not determine the Macaro - Edwards issues but leave them to the Courts to resolve. The statute would emphasize however that "a wrongful acquisition of property or interest not covered by this section must be treated in accordance with the principle that a killer cannot profit from his or her own wrong."

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