News & Insights

Can Bad Conduct Keep You From Inheriting Under a Will?

As a general rule, you do not need to be perfect or flawless to inherit under someone’s will. If someone includes you in their will, you are entitled to your bequest, even if other people or the Court do not agree with the decision. The court’s goal is to determine and carry out the intent of the individual who wrote the will (the grantor), not judge who deserves to be a beneficiary. However, there are certain circumstances in which bad conduct will keep you from inheriting and the Court can effectively write you out of the will or estate. Two common examples of this are as follows:

Slayer Rule

The “Slayer Rule” provides that someone who culpably kills another person forfeits any interest in that person’s estate including as a beneficiary under the decedent’s insurance policy, or financial account.

The person must have engaged in intentional or reckless conduct, not negligent conduct. For instance, in the Matter of Wigfall, a 2008 Westchester County case, a father who negligently failed to fasten his child’s car seat prior to an accident in which the child died did not forfeit his interest in the child’s estate. The rule also does not apply if the decedent was killed in self-defense or if the killer was found not guilty as a result of insanity.

Notably, the rule is not codified in a statute but exists as a principle under common law dating back to 1889. As such, it has been extended by case law in recent years to also preclude inheritance by an adult child of the decedent where the child’s husband murdered the decedent.

The Slayer Rule does exist in a statute in one limited circumstance. Section 4-1.6 of the New York Estates Powers and Trust Law (EPTL) prohibits a joint tenant who kills a fellow joint tenant from inheriting. In such a situation, the proceeds pass to the estate of the deceased joint tenant, not the killer. However, this law only applies to joint owners of financial accounts, not to joint owners of other property.

Don’t Act as a Parent, Don’t Inherit as One

Section 4-1.4 of the EPTL addresses certain situations where a parent will be disqualified from benefiting from the estate of their deceased child under the age of 21. The law applies where a parent “failed or refused to provide for” or abandoned the child, or a Court has terminated the individual’s parental rights. A parent can cure their misconduct by later resuming the parental relationship and duties and continuing to perform them until the child’s death.

Importantly, this law only prevents the parent from inheriting as an intestate heir and receiving portions of a wrongful death settlement. It does not prohibit the abandoning parent from receiving assets as a named beneficiary under an insurance policy.

Similarly, Section 5-1.2 of the EPTL prevents a spouse who either abandons a former spouse or fails to provide court-mandated support from being treated as a “surviving spouse” and inheriting under intestacy laws or receiving an elective share under a will.

If you are seeking to prevent someone from inheriting or defending against such a claim, contact one of our attorneys to discuss your case.