In Fiel v. Hoffman, (4th DCA 2015) the Florida appellate court decided that the Florida Slayer Statute and the Florida probate code statute regarding the effect of undue influence on the validity of a will mean what they say.
This probate case involved the probate of Fontainebleau Miami Beach heir Ben Novack’s estate. Ben’s wife, Narcy, was convicted of his murder. Narcy was also responsible for the death of Ben’s mom. Narcy had a daughter from a prior marriage, and the daughter had two sons. The daughter and her sons were named as beneficiaries of Ben’s will if Ben’s mother and Narcy did not survive Ben.
Narcy sought probate of the will. The Florida probate court determined that based upon Florida’s Slayer Statute, Narcy could not participate in the estate, and the court was required to treat Narcy as if she had predeceased Ben. Ben’s cousins, Meredith and Lisa Fiel, filed a complaint to invalidate Ben’s will, as well as an October 2002 Will which devised the residue of Ben’s estate to Narcy, or to Ben’s mother if Narcy predeceased Ben. The Fiels sought to enforce a June 2002 Will which left Ben’s estate to the Fiels if his mother predeceased him.
What Is Florida’s Slayer Statute?
The Fiels argued that (1) the Slayer Statute barred Ben’s stepdaughter and step-grandsons (Narcy’s daughter and grandsons) from inheriting under Ben’s will, and (2) the last two wills were void for undue influence.
Florida’s Slayer Statute prohibits a killer from profiting from the estate of the person they killed, and reads in part:
A surviving person who unlawfully and intentionally kills or participates in procuring the death of the decedent is not entitled to any benefits under the will or under the Florida Probate Code, and the estate of the decedent passes as if the killer had predeceased the decedent. Property appointed by the will of the decedent to or for the benefit of the killer passes as if the killer had predeceased the decedent.
Does Florida’s Slayer Statute Bar A Killer’s Family From Inheriting?
The Fiels argued that Narcy could benefit from the estate indirectly by her daughter and grandchildren inheriting. The Florida probate court dismissed this claim, determining that the Slayer Statute did not prohibit the children of the murderer from inheriting, ruling:
Section 732.802 is clear and unambiguous and does not extend the prohibition of receipt of property or other benefits to anyone other than the killer of the decedent. It is not for the Court to legislate new laws or amendments to existing laws that are clear and unambiguous, that is exclusively a legislative process.
The Florida appellate court agreed with the Florida probate court, ruling 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.” While other states have slayer statutes that can be read to bar the children of the slayer from inheriting, Florida’s statute cannot be so construed.
The Florida appellate court continued by stating:
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.
Undue Influence Statute Strictly Construed
The Florida probate code says that:
A will is void if the execution is procured by fraud, duress, mistake, or undue influence. Any part of the will is void if so procured, but the remainder of the will not so procured shall be valid if it is not invalid for other reasons. . . .
The Fiels alleged that Narcy unduly influenced Ben to execute the wills, using physical violence and threatening Ben with public embarrassment. The Florida probate court dismissed the undue influence claim, determining that the complaint did not allege that the daughter and grandsons participated in any way in the undue influence, so the devises to them remained valid.
The Florida appellate court disagreed with the Florida probate court, finding that the complaint stated a cause of action under the statute, stating:
The general rule [that the portion of the will not procured by undue influence remains valid] as stated above is subject to the limitation that it is not applicable when it will defeat the manifest intent of the testator, interfere with the general scheme of distribution, or work an injustice to other heirs. The doctrine is not applicable where it is impossible to determine to what extent the specific legacies have been tainted by the undue influence; in such a situation the whole will must either be refused probate or admitted thereto. Moreover, the rule which permits the probate of part of a will notwithstanding other parts are declared invalid as affected by undue influence does not mean that a legatee may sustain his bequest on the ground that he did not participate in bringing undue influence to bear on the testator, where it appears that the entire instrument was the result of undue influence.
The Fiels alleged that Narcy used undue influence to get Ben to sign the wills that completely altered Ben’s estate plan, and that the contested wills were “entirely tainted” due to the undue influence by Narcy, including the provisions for Narcy’s daughter and grandchildren. The Fiels further alleged that Narcy’s actions were undertaken not only to benefit herself but also her family.
These allegations were sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss as to the undue influence claim.
The takeaway is that Florida’s slayer statute and undue influence statute are strictly construed by Florida courts.