Why The Estate BattleOver Murdered Heir'sFortune Still Rages

The headlines were scandalous and compelling. The heir to the Fontainebleau Hotel fortune had been brutally murdered, only months after his own mother had died in suspicious circumstances. His wife Narcy was charged and convicted with both murders.

Ben Novack with wife Narcy, mother Bernice and stepdaughter May.

Ben Novack with wife Narcy, mother Bernice and stepdaughter May.

On July 12, 2009, Ben was found murdered in a hotel room in Rye Brook, N.Y.  A few months earlier, Ben’s mother, Bernice had also been found dead in her home in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.    Narcy was convicted of both of these murders in a federal district court in New York and was sentenced to life in prison.  As detailed in the government’s filings in the criminal case against her, the crime was gruesome.  Narcy watched as the hit men she had hired to kill her husband pummeled him in the head and chest with dumbbells, bound him with duct tape and slashed his eyes.

In its opinion, the Fourth District noted that Narcy did all of this to assure that she and her family would obtain Ben’s considerable fortune on his death.  Under Ben’s estate plan, if Ben survived his mother, his fortune was to go to Narcy.

Narcy was apparently unaware the Florida has what it known as the ‘Slayer Statute’. This is a common law rule that: “no person should be permitted to benefit from his own wrong.” Florida’s Slayer Statute prohibits the person who killed the decedent from receiving any benefits under the decedent’s will or through intestate succession, and the estate of the decedent passes as if the killer had predeceased the decedent. In other words, Narcy no longer had any claim to her husband’s fortune.

So what would happen to the estate? It would appear that next in line to inherit was Narcy’s daughter and grandchildren. But this was contested by Ben’s cousins, Meredith and Lisa Fiels. They argued that Narcy could still benefit indirectly from the inheritance going to her daughter and grandchildren. What would stop them from giving Narcy money? Based on the potential indirect benefit to Narcy, the Fiels sought to convince the Florida trial court that the Slayer Statute also barred Narcy’s daughter and grandkids from inheriting under Ben’s will.

The Florida court sought to apply the Slayer Statue in strict terms. It agreed that the statutory language was clear and unambiguous in providing that only the “surviving person who . . .  kills” is prohibited from benefiting from the act of killing, and further that the property of the decedent passes – without exception – “as if the killer had predeceased the descendant.”  Accordingly, the Fourth District affirmed the trial court’s conclusion that Florida’s Slayer Statute disinherits only the killer and anyone who participates in the killing of the decedent.  Thus, Narcy’s daughter and grandkids weren’t barred from taking under Ben’s will.

In many jurisdictions, including Queensland, you can't inherit someone's estate if you killed them.

In many jurisdictions, including Queensland, you can’t inherit someone’s estate if you killed them.

This recent ruling doesn’t end the battle over Ben’s fortune.  The Fiels also sought to invalidate two of Ben’s wills (which benefited Narcy’s family) on the basis of undue influence.  In their complaint, the Fiels alleged that Narcy had used physical violence, death threats, home invasions and extortions to make Ben execute the two wills naming her and her family as beneficiaries.  The Florida probate court had dismissed the Fiels complaint for failure to state a claim.  But Florida’s appellate court reversed the trial court’s dismissal and remanded the case for further proceedings in the trial court.  It appears that with this ruling, as one chapter of the estate of Ben Novack closes, the next chapter begins.

Other challengers to the will include Ben’s cousins, Andrea Hissom Wynn, and her brother, Joseph Danenza, along with cousins Gerald Brezner and the Fiels. Wynn, the wife of Las Vegas hotel magnate Steve Wynn, is the daughter of Arlene Novack, Ben’s sister.

Also appealing the judge’s decision is Ronnie Marc Novack, Ben’s half-brother; and another unidentified woman who claims she is Ben Novack Sr.’s illegitimate daughter, the product of a one-night stand with someone who once worked at the Fontainebleau.

The slayer statue applies in Queensland too (although it doesn’t have quite the same catchy title). In Queensland, the same doctrine is enshrined in common law, known as the Forfeiture Rule. Mitchells Solicitors were involved in a case where the Forfeiture Rule was tested by a beneficiary who had assisted the suicide of the deceased.

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