Fiel v. Hoffman, — So.3d —-, 2015 WL 4549604 (Fla. 4th DCA July 29, 2015)

novack_murder
In 2009, Bernice Novack and her son Fontainebleau Miami Beach hotel heir Ben Novack, Jr, were murdered three months apart. In 2012, Narcy Novack, Ben’s estranged wife, was convicted of orchestrating the murders and after a highly publicized trial, was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The 4th DCA ruled Narcy’s daughter and her grandsons were not disinherited by Florida’s Slayer Statute.

This appeal is the latest chapter in the battle over the fortune of Fontainebleau heir Ben Novack Jr. Novack was murdered in 2009. In 2012, his estranged wife, Narcy Novack, was sentenced to life in prison for paying hitmen to  kill him and his 86-year-old mother. Prosecutors alleged that Narcy was afraid that her husband would leave her for his mistress, and that a prenuptial agreement would only leave her $65,000 instead of the bulk of her late husband’s multimillion dollar estate. They claimed she was motivated by “hatred, greed, and vengeance.”

Novack’s murder was the subject of intense media coverage, including a multi-part series on NBC’s Dateline entitled Family Affair, and a made-for-television movie entitled Beautiful & Twisted, which starred Rob Lowe as Novack. What gets lost in all the hype over the gruesome murders and ensuing criminal trial is the heated probate litigation over Novack’s estate, which has been ongoing for years, as reported by the Miami Herald in As family fight continues, Ben Novack Jr. fortunes shrink:

Novack’s assets, once estimated at as much as $10 million, appear to have dwindled down to less than $4 million, according to court documents. The estate has been the focus of a five-year probate battle involving a legion of family members, long-lost relatives and even one possible illegitimate child. They have been contesting the slain millionaire’s 2006 will, which left the bulk of his property, cash, life insurance, Batman collectibles and other valuables to his wife, Narcy.

Florida’s Slayer Statute:

Novack’s wife, Narcy, is prohibited from inheriting any of her husband’s wealth by Florida’s version of the “slayer rule,” a common-law doctrine that prohibits a murderer from inheriting property from the person he or she killed. This doctrine’s been codified in section 732.802 of Florida’s Probate Code, and comes up more often than you’d expect (for recent examples see here, here, here). With Narcy out of the picture, Novack’s last will leaves $150,000 to Narcy’s daughter, with the bulk of Novack’s multimillion dollar estate going to Narcy’s two adult grandsons.

So here’s the question raised by this appeal. If a murderer indirectly benefits from her crime because her family members inherit the wealth of the man she killed, is that legal? Again as reported in the Miami Herald piece:

Harvey Morse, a genealogist researcher and lawyer, is representing some members of the clan who believe that the slayer statute should be expanded to include Narcy’s daughter and grandsons. “Look at it this way. Grandmom is in prison and she tells her grandsons she needs money for legal fees,” Morse said. “It’s not out of the possibility that the grandsons would help her out.”

Does Florida’s Slayer Statute also disinherit a killer’s descendants? NO

This is not a new argument — and it’s not without its philosophical justifications (e.g., one could argue it’s not the actual fault that’s passed down to the killer’s descendants, but the consequences of the original crime, see here). Ultimately, however, this kind of public policy balancing act is best left to our legislature. As Florida’s Slayer Statute currently reads, our courts simply do not have the authority to extend the rule’s reach to a murderer’s family members.

The extension argument’s been consistently rejected by our appellate courts. First by the 2d DCA in In re Estate of Benson, 548 So.2d 775 (Fla. 2d DCA 1989) (“Slayer Statute” did not prevent minor children of man who murdered his mother and brother from inheriting their father’s share under his mother’s will or their father’s share of his brother’s intestate estate.), then by the 3d DCA in Lopez v. Rodriguez, 574 So.2d 249, 250 (Fla. 3d DCA 1991) (“We decline to hold that the legislature intended the statute to deprive an innocent beneficiary of the trust proceeds.”), and then again by the 1st DCA in Chatman v. Currie, 606 So.2d 454, 456 (Fla. 1st DCA 1992) (“We hold as a matter of law that section 732.802 does not apply to an innocent contingent beneficiary’s entitlement to life insurance benefits resulting from the killing of the primary beneficiary by the insured who then commits suicide.”). In all of these cases the courts focused on the clear and unambiguous text of the statute, which only applies to the killer — not his family members. Not surprisingly, the extension argument didn’t work this time around either. So saith the 4th DCA:

We agree with our sister courts [in Benson (2d DCA), Lopez (3d DCA), and Chatman (1st DCA), as well as the trial court [in this case], that the statute is clear and unambiguous and disinherits only the slayer, or anyone who participates in the killing of the decedent, from any rights to the victim’s estate. Appellants contend that Benson and its progeny all involved innocent family members related by blood, whereas here the daughter and grandchildren were related to the murderer and not to the decedent. Benson, however, did not turn on this factor. Rather, the Benson court relied on the plain language of the statute, which by its terms excludes only those who actively participate in procuring the death of the decedent.

. . .

The statute is clear. To interpret the statute to preclude the stepchildren from recovering would require us to add words to the statute, something we cannot do. If the Legislature deems as a public policy matter that anyone inheriting through the slayer should be barred from receiving any share of a victim’s estate, it can amend the statute to accomplish that result.

Bonus material:

For more on the issues raised by this case, you’ll want to read Is it Time to Expand Florida’s Slayer Statute? by Jeffrey A. Baskies and Justin M. Savioli of Katz Baskies & Wolf PLLC, Boca Raton, Florida. Here’s an excerpt:

Collateral Beneficiaries Issue Exists in Many States

This is not a uniquely Florida issue, as several other states have similar statutes. If the Florida statute is to be expanded, there are models worthy of consideration. The Fourth DCA notes the appellants cited several cases from other states with laws that may be more progressive on this issue.

According to the decision, the appellants cited to state Slayer Statutes and cases in Rhode Island, Indiana and Illinois, all of which precluded stepchildren from inheriting where their parent was the killer.

The Fourth DCA quoted from the Rhode Island Act, which in pertinent part provides that “[n]either the slayer nor any person claiming through him or her shall in any way acquire any property or receive any benefit as the result of the death of the decedent, but the property shall pass as provided in this chapter.” Quoting Swain v. Estate of Tyre ex rel. Reilly, the court held that the Rhode Island statute precluded stepchildren of the deceased from inheriting from her, when their father was charged with her murder, and the children stated that they would use their inheritance to pay for their father’s criminal defense.

The Fourth DCA also cited to an Illinois case, In re Estate of Mueller, noting the Illinois Slayer Statute provides that a slayer should not receive “any property, benefit, or other interest by reason of the death, whether as heir, legatee, beneficiary… or in any other capacity ….” In Mueller, the court construed this language as prohibiting the slayer/wife’s children from their share of her husband’s estate, because the wife could receive a benefit in her capacity as guardian of her minor child.

Perhaps the slayer statutes in Rhode Island, Indiana or Illinois offer helpful examples.

. . .

Developments in other states as well as interesting Florida cases such as the Fiel case should lead the Florida Bar to review the current Slayer Statute and consider if some expansion and modernization is in order. Any expansion of the statute should also consider the addition of an option for a court to avoid the application of the statute if the preponderance of the evidence indicates application of the statute would cause a manifest injustice.