Thursday, August 21, 2014
An opinion yesterday from the New York Appellate Division for the Second Judicial Department
It is a well-established equitable principle that a wrongdoer should not benefit from his or her own wrongdoing. On this appeal, this Court is presented with the question of whether a person who unlawfully kills another should be permitted to inherit the victim's assets indirectly through the estate of the victim's daughter. Under the particular facts of this case, where there is a clear causal link between the wrongful conduct and the benefits sought, we answer that question in the negative.
The claimant married his high school sweetheart and strangled his mother-in-law to death a year later.
His wife believed in his innocence and stood by him. She died of a drug overdose and he subsequently pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the first degree.
[Estate Administrator] DiRusso further contends that [wife] Deanna's interest in the decedent's estate vested upon the decedent's death, and that Deanna may do with her property as she wishes, even if others find her choices abhorrent. This "vesting" argument, however, is unpersuasive. As Deanna died intestate, any purported choice she may have made to leave her property to Brandon is not memorialized in a will. Moreover, even if Deanna had made an otherwise-discernable intentional choice to leave her property to Brandon—perhaps through knowledge that if she died intestate, her property would pass to her surviving spouse—to the extent that her property was inherited from the decedent, the Riggs doctrine would apply to prevent Brandon from benefitting from his own wrongdoing.
If this Court were to allow Brandon to inherit the assets of the decedent's estate through Deanna's estate, it would be rewarding Brandon's criminal behavior. This, in turn, would " allow [the court] to be made the instrument of wrong'" (Campbell v Thomas, 73 AD3d at 119, quoting Matter of Hogan v Supreme Ct. of State of N.Y., 295 NY 92, 96). This Court will not put its imprimatur on Brandon's efforts to gain from his admittedly criminal conduct.