Inheritance in New York Can Be Forfeited Where the Beneficiary Causes the Decedent’s Death

Estate beneficiaries in New York can have rights to receive a share of a decedent’s assets in a variety of circumstances. The beneficiary can be named in the decedent’s Last Will or, if no Will exists (“intestacy”), the beneficiary may be one of the decedent’s next of kin (a “distributee”). As provided in New York Estates, Powers and Trusts Law (EPTL) section 4-1.1 a distributee receives a share of the estate.

There are some situations, however, where the estate share may be forfeited by the beneficiary. For instance, EPTL 5-1.2 provides that interests of a surviving spouse may be lost under certain circumstances including the “abandonment of the deceased spouse” (EPTL 5-1.2(a)(6).

Another example of forfeiture that is recognized by the New York Surrogate’s Court provides that a person who murders another forfeits his or her right to inherit from the victim’s estate. This doctrine, which prevents a person from profiting from a wrongful act, seem fairly easy to apply where the murderer is convicted by the crime. The recent case of People v. Borukhova, a Queens, New York doctor who was convicted of hiring her cousin to kill her husband, would seem to satisfy the forfeiture criteria. However, all situations are not as clear. What if a person’s death was due to alleged neglect or mistreatment and no criminal proceedings were instituted against the alleged wrongdoer. Such a situation occurred in Matter of Karp which was decided by New York County Surrogate Kristin Booth Glenn on September 22, 2011 and reported in the New York Law Journal on October 4, 2011.

In Karp the sister and nephews of the decedent claimed that the “decedent’s wife of more than 15 years, intentionally or recklessly caused decedent’s death and should therefore forfeit her interest in [his] multi-million dollar estate.”

After reviewing the extensive evidence, the Surrogate found that the decedent died due to causes directly related to his own requests for termination of certain medical procedures and that no action on the part of his wife caused his death. Therefore, the Surrogate granted summary judgment dismissing the sister and nephews claim.

Although the claims in Karp were dismissed, the case does raise some interesting concerns for both pre-death care and post-death estate settlement. In Karp the decedent was very ill prior to his passing away. Issues may arise as to what responsibility a beneficiary may have to institute Article 81 Guardianship proceedings to have a guardian appointed to assist a person with health care and other personal needs decisions. When a person appears incapacitated can the failure by a beneficiary to assist him or her result in a forfeiture of an inheritance? Also, if a beneficiary is a health care agent under a Health Care Proxy, can he or she lose an inheritance in the event the health care decisions result in the decedent’s death?

Finally, after a person has died, Executors, Administrators and estate beneficiaries may examine the circumstances leading up to death in order to consider whether a proceeding for forfeiture is a viable consideration. Bronx probate attorneys, as well as probate lawyers throughout New York, can review these matters and advise clients as to their rights.

New York Probate Attorney Jules M. Haas has helped many clients over the past 30 years resolve issues relating to guardianship intestate estates, estate planning, kinship and estate settlement. I have represented clients in these matters throughout New York including the Manhattan and Queens Counties. If you or someone you know has any questions regarding these matters, please contact me at (212) 355-2575 for an initial consultation.

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