DECEMBER 10, 2001 VOLUME 9, NUMBER 24
In April of 1998 Edward M. Covert shot and killed his wife Kathleen, and then killed himself. Out of that family tragedy arose an interesting legal problem: who would inherit Kathleen Covert’s estate?
Mr. and Mrs. Covert lived and died in New York, but the legal problem was not unique to that state. As in all of the U.S. states, New York has a rule designed to keep wrongdoers from profiting from their misdeeds: although Mr. Covert technically survived his wife, he would be treated as having died before her for purposes of inheritance.
Like many couples Mr. and Mrs. Covert had signed mirror-image wills. First they left everything to one another, but in the event of simultaneous death they divided their assets into three equal shares. One share was to go to Mr. Covert’s parents and one to Mrs. Covert’s parents. The final share was to be divided among both Mr. Covert’s three sisters and Mrs. Covert’s two siblings.
Mrs. Covert left an estate of about $225,000. In addition she and her husband were joint tenants with right of survivorship on some additional property; although he did not lose his own interest in that property by killing his wife, he could not receive her half interest despite the fact that he actually did survive her.
That meant that Mr. Covert’s parents and siblings would receive almost half of Mrs. Covert’s estate. Mrs. Covert’s family did not think that result was right—after all, his family would then benefit from his misdeed, and they did not believe that should be permitted. They objected to the proposed distribution of any of Mrs. Covert’s property to her husband’s family. They also argued that Mr. Covert’s life insurance policy and retirement benefits, which named Mrs. Covert as primary beneficiary, should be paid into her estate and ultimately distributed to her family members. Both the life insurance and the retirement benefits named Mr. Covert’s parents as alternate beneficiaries.
After the trial court agreed with the arguments of Mrs. Covert’s family Mr. Covert’s parents appealed. The New York Court of Appeals reversed, ordering that the rule disinheriting wrongdoers did not disqualify their family members from receiving property. Since Mrs. Covert actually died before Mr. Covert, and Mr. Covert was treated as having died before his wife, both estates would pass to the alternate recipients named in their wills. Since the life insurance and retirement accounts named alternate beneficiaries, they would pass according to the contract terms to Mr. Covert’s parents. Matter of the Estates of Covert, 11/20/2001.
The result would have been the same under Arizona law. Although Arizona treats a killer as having predeceased his victim, the disinheritance does not extend to innocent family members.