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Probate issues arise after suspicious death of Florida hotel heir

Palm Beach County residents may take interest in the unusual probate litigation surrounding the estate of the affluent son of a Miami Beach hotel tycoon. An ongoing criminal case accuses the decedent's wife of conspiring to arrange his murder.

With the widow now in jail, members of the man's extended family question whether the widow's children from a prior relationship should enjoy the benefit of the estate's assets. The hotel heir's family members filed a petition in probate court seeking an interpretation of Florida's slayer statute that would prevent the estate administrator from distributing assets to the widow's children.

The slayer statute bars a murderer from profiting off the victim's probate assets, but Florida courts have never before been asked to apply the statute to non-marital children of the alleged murderer.

At stake are proceeds, held in trust, from the sale of a large portion of the man's estate, including personal property and a collection of comic book memorabilia valued at around $2 million. The deceased man's will expressly bequeaths a portion of his estate to his widow's daughter and two grandsons. Whether the probate court will uphold the gifts of the will in the event that the widow's trial ends with a murder conviction remains to be seen.

According to the man's family members, they intend to raise the slayer statute in civil court as a bar to inheritance by the widow's children, even if the criminal case clears the widow of murder charges. The outcome of this case could change the landscape of probate litigation in Florida in the future.

Source: The Jewish Daily Forward, "Hotel Heir's Murder Sparks Miami Feud," Mary Jane Fine, March 19, 2012

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