Under New York law, when a child dies, typically their parents are their next of kin and are entitled to share in their intestate estate. However, a parent can be disqualified from inheriting from the child’s estate under two conditions: if the parent abandoned the child before their 21st birthday or if the parent failed to provide financially for the child before their 21st birthday. EPTL § 4-1.4. In addition, there is a long-standing rule in New York that a person is not permitted to profit by their own wrongdoing.
Because children generally do not have significant estates. However, if the child’s death is due to an accident, they child may have been awarded a significant settlement from a personal injury claim for their conscious pain and suffering. In addition, the child’s next of kin may be entitled to share in a settlement for wrongful death.
On May 16, 2004 the decedent was a passenger in a vehicle driven by Wigfall. Wigfall had failed to place the decedent in a car seat or to put a seatbelt on her. While operating the vehicle, Wigfall fell asleep and caused the accident. The decedent was severely injured, suffering injuries to her head and brain. She remained in a vegetative state for 3 years until her death on February 10, 2007 at the age of six. Wigfall died in October 2007.
The petitioner, who is the decedent’s mother, asked the court to disqualify Wigfall as a distributee of decedent’s estate under New York’s intestate succession rules. She based her petition on 3 issues:
- Because Wigfall caused her death, he is barred from sharing in her estate. Riggs v Palmer, 115 N.Y. 506 (N.Y. 1889)
- Because Wigfall failed to property secure the decedent in the car, he neglected her and that neglect amounted to abandonment or failure to provide, he is barred from sharing in her estate. EPTL 4-1.4
- Because Wigfall failed to provide any financial support to the decedent, he is barred from sharing in her estate. EPTL 4-1.4
The court first considered the petitioner’s argument under Riggs v Palmer. Riggs established the precedent that people cannot profit from their criminal or fraudulent actions. In Riggs, a beneficiary in a decedent’s will intentionally caused the death of the decedent. Although a will is a legally enforceable document, the law will make an exception where a beneficiary caused the death of the decedent. They will not be allowed to benefit from their criminal action. The testamentary gift to that beneficiary would fail.
Here, even though the father of the decedent caused her death, the court found that principle in Riggs did not apply. Riggs applied to cases were involving intentionally causing another’s death. In this case, the decedent’s death was accidental due to the negligent act of the father.
Next, the court considered whether the father would be barred based on abandonment or failure to support. While the court acknowledges that Wigfall was negligent in failing to properly secure his daughter in a child safety seat and in falling asleep while driving and that the consequences were tragic, they found that those actions did not amount to abandonment or failure to support as contemplated by EPTL § 4-1.4.
However, the court did find a basis to disqualify Wigfall. The petitioner alleged that Wigfall did not provide financial support for the decedent’s benefit and did not make an effort to be a consistent part of her life. The allegations were not disputed. As a result, the court determined there were sufficient allegation to establish a prima facie showing of Wigfall’s abandonment and failure to support decedent. As a result the court found there to be sufficient grounds for Wigfall’s disqualification as decedent’s intestate distributee pursuant to EPTL § 4-1.4(a)(1)