In Fiel v. Hoffman, 2015 Fla. App. LEXIS 11414 (Fla. 4th DCA 2015), the Fourth DCA dismissed a complaint alleging that Section 732.802, Fla. Stat. (the “Slayer Statute”) barred the slayer’s daughter and grandchildren from inheriting under the Decedent’s will and an earlier will, and which challenged the validity of the two wills devising the estate to the slayer and her descendants based upon undue influence in the execution of the wills. In the subject case, Ben Novack’s (the “Decedent”) murder and the murder of the Decedent’s mother were orchestrated by his wife, Narcy, so that she and her family would receive the Decedent’s considerable fortune upon his death. Narcy was convicted of the Decedent’s murder and was also responsible for the death of his mother.
The Decedent’s will named Narcy’s daughter by another marriage and the daughter’s sons as beneficiaries if the Decedent’s mother and Narcy did not survive him. After Narcy sought probate of the will, the court appointed Douglas Hoffman (“Appellee”) as personal representative. The court determined that based upon the Slayer Statute, Narcy was not entitled to participate in the estate, and the statute required the court to treat Narcy as if she had predeceased the Decedent. Therefore, her daughter and grandsons were the sole beneficiaries of the estate. The Decedent’s cousins, Meredith and Lisa Fiel (“Appellants”), then filed a complaint and an amended complaint to invalidate the will under probate, as well as a prior will executed in October 2002, which devised the residue of the estate to Narcy, or to the Decedent’s mother if Narcy predeceased him. Appellants sought to enforce a will executed in June 2002, which devised the residue of the Decedent’s estate to his mother if she survived him, and to Appellants if his mother predeceased him. The trial court dismissed their complaint and amended complaint. The trial court held the Slayer Statute did not prohibit the children of the murderer from inheriting. It further found that where one beneficiary procured a will by undue influence, the devises to the remaining beneficiaries who did not participate in the procurement remain valid.
The Fourth DCA first addressed the Slayer Statute issue. Appellants argued that the Slayer Statute should be interpreted to bar Narcy’s daughter and grandsons from inheriting. The Court found that the Slayer Statute is clear and ambiguous and disinherits only the slayer or anyone who participates in the killing of the decedent from any rights to the victim’s estate. The Court refused to extend the prohibition on inheritance to the heirs of the slayer citing established precedent in other district courts such as In re Estate of Benson, 548 So.2d 775 (Fla. 2d DCA 1989) and In re Estate of Fairweather, 444 So. 2d 464, 465 (Fla. 2d DCA 1983). Appellants sought to distinguish In re Estate of Benson and its progeny because the innocent family members were related by blood. The Fourth DCA refused to interpret the statute to preclude stepchildren from recovering because it would require them to add words to the statute. They deferred to the legislature to amend the statute if they deem same a public policy matter.
The Fourth DCA then held that the Appellants were able to state a cause of action for undue influence, even though the “undue influencer” was the wife, and not her family, because they alleged that the entire will was tainted by the wife’s actions and the bequests in favor of her family could not be severed from the rest of the will. The Fourth DCA cited to the distinction between circumstances where only a portion of the will was affected by undue influence and circumstances where it appeared the entire instrument was the result of undue influence. See, In re Estate of Van Horne, 305 So. 2d 46 (Fla. 3d DCA 1974) and Wehrheim v. Golden Pond Assisted Living Facility, 905 So.2d 1002 (Fla. 5th DCA 2005). In the amended complaint, Appellants alleged that Narcy had used physical violence against Decedent to make him execute the two wills naming her and her family as beneficiaries. She also threatened to make public embarrassing personal matters of the Decedent. The Decedent had sought a restraining order against Narcy, in which he alleged that she had made death threats to him. Thus, Appellants argued, the subject wills were the product of undue influence, that the wills were entirely tainted due to the degree of undue influence caused by Narcy and that the provisions for the stepdaughter and step-grandsons had been tainted by the undue influence. The Fourth DCA held these allegations were sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss because they allege that the undue influence tainted the entire will including the bequests to the stepdaughter and step-grandsons. Thus, the Fourth DCA affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the complaint based upon the Slayer Statute but reversed the dismissal of the count for revocation of the wills based upon undue influence.
If the facts of this case ring a bell, it’s because they have been the subject of many television programs (My Dirty Little Secret, 48 Hours, Dateline NBC, Snapped and True Crime) and a made for television Lifetime movie (“The Novack Murders Beautiful & Twisted”).
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