Ruling on NY Inheritance Case for Mother Who Drowned Children

Earlier this year we shared information on a controversial New York inheritance case that was soon to be decided. The issue revolved around a mother’s attempt to inherit part of her children’s estate, valued at around $350,000. Her three children died in 2008 after the mother herself drowned them.

Of course, it seems perverse that an individual who causes a death could then benefit from the tragedy via intestacy laws which would pass on assets. In this case, the estate itself was sizeable specifically because of a wrongful death lawsuit brought by two of the children’s fathers against Nassau County for alleged lapses in social worker care.

Should She Inherit?
In general, a New York law is in place to prevent criminals from profiting from their crimes–often referred to as the Son of Sam law. That rule would seem to prevent the mother from inheriting in this situation. However, the wrinkle is that the mother was actually found not guilty in the criminal trial after the deaths due to a mental disease. The issue, then, is whether she can inherit because she was technically not convicted of the crime.

In a ruling handed down last week, the judge in the case denied her the right to inherit. As reported by ABC News, the specific ruling was somewhat convoluted. The judge noted that the Son of Sam law technically does not apply in this case (because there was no conviction), however the mother was denied inheritance rights on separate “equitable” grounds.

The judge explained, “The fact that the state cannot criminally punish an insane defendant is irrelevant to a determination of whether it is equitable for the killer to inherit from the victim.” This reasoning is already being referred to as the “Brewer Rule” — in reference to the mother in this case.

Who Will Inherit?
This decision does not end the matter, however. Still being contested is whether the fathers (the children had two different fathers) legally abandoned the children while they were alive. If so, then the fathers would also not be eligible to inherit the children’s estate. Legal abandonment usually cuts off inheritance rights. In fact, the attorney for the mother in this case explained that the attempt to allow the mother to inherit was specifically done in order to prevent the fathers from cashing in on the tragedy even though they were largely absent from their children’s lives.

A hearing on the abandonment issue will be held next month, and the estate will remain in limbo until that time.

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