The story of Ben Novack, the heir to famed Fontainebleau hotel who was brutally murdered by his wife, Narcy Novack, has received widespread media coverage and resulted in multiple and protracted litigations. More than five years after Ben’s death, the fight for his fortune still continues. In this latest chapter of the estate of Ben Novack, Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal was asked to consider whether Florida’s Slayer Statute precludes a murderer from indirectly benefiting from her crime.1 Strictly construing the language of the statute, the court concluded that it doesn’t: The murder’s descendants are entitled to share in the victim’s estate, even if the inheritance may indirectly benefit the murderer.
Two Grisly Murders
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.2
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.3 Under Ben’s estate plan, if Ben survived his mother, his fortune was to go to Narcy.
Apparently, Narcy was unaware of Florida’s Slayer statute, which derives from the common law rule that: “no person should be permitted to benefit from his own wrong.”4 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.
Thus followed the fight, in Broward County, Fla. probate court, over Ben’s fortune.
Applicability of Slayer Statute
The probate court administering Ben’s estate initially determined that Narcy wasn’t entitled to participate in the estate and would be treated as having predeceased Ben under Florida’s Slayer Statute.5 Under Ben’s estate plan, because: (1) his mother had predeceased him, and (2) Narcy was treated as having predeceased him pursuant to Florida’s Slayer Statute, Ben’s fortune was to go to Narcy’s daughter and her kids.
This didn’t sit well with Ben’s cousins, Meredith and Lisa Fiel (the Fiels). They believed that Narcy could still indirectly benefit from Ben’s fortune in contravention of the policy behind the Slayer Statute. After all, they argued, Narcy’s daughter and grandkids could simply deposit money inherited from Ben into Narcy’s prison inmate account. 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.
Appellate Court Strictly Construes Slayer Statute
In addressing the Fiels’ argument, the Fourth District looked to the plain language of Florida’s Slayer Statute:
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.
Following the decision in In re Estate of Benson,, the Fourth District agreed that the statutory language was clear and unambiguous in providing that only the “surviving person who . . . kills” is prohibited from benefitting 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.
The Fiels argued for a different result based on the fact that courts of several other states have barred a killer’s descendants from sharing in the victim’s estate. Indeed, the vast majority of states have adopted some form of a Slayer Statute.7 The court acknowledged that Slayer Statutes in other states have been construed more broadly, but pointed out that the broader construction was the result of different – and broader – statutory language. For example, the Fourth District noted that Rhode Island’s Slayer Statute provides that “neither the slayer nor any person claiming through him or her” shall inherit from the decedent and that in Illinois, the Slayer Statute provides that a slayer shouldn’t receive “any property, benefit, or other interest by reason of the death, whether as heir, legatee, beneficiary . . . or in any other capacity.”8
Recognizing that its role in statutory interpretation is limited, the Fourth District concluded that it couldn’t add words to Florida’s Slayer Statute to broaden its application and that any such change to the statute could only be made by Florida’s legislature.
The Saga Continues
This recent ruling doesn’t end the battle over Ben’s fortune. In the probate proceedings, 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.9 The Florida probate court had dismissed the Fiels complaint for failure to state a claim. In the same appellate opinion discussed above, Florida’s appellate court ruled that the Fiels stated a cause of action for undue influence, 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.
1. See Fiel v. Hoffman, 169 So.3d 1274 (Fla. 4th DCA 2015).
2. Government’s Sentencing Memorandum at 6, U.S.A. v. Narcisa Veliz Novack, et al., No. 7:10-cr-00602-KMK (S.D.N.Y. Dec. 3, 2012), ECF No. 127.
3. Fiel v. Hoffman, 169 So.3d, at 1275.
4. Ibid., at 1276.
5. Ibid., at 1275.
6. In re Estate of Benson, 548 So.2d 775 (Fla. 2d DCA 1989)
7. Swain v. Estate of Tyre ex rel. Reilly, 57 A.3d 283, 292–94 (R.I.2012).
8. Fiel v. Hoffman, 169 So. 3d, at 1278.
9. Ibid., at 1275-76.