Brandon Palladino
Brandon Palladino ()

Citing the “clear causal link” between a man’s unlawful killing of his mother-in-law and the benefits he stood to gain, a Brooklyn appellate court has ruled that wrongdoers cannot indirectly inherit a victim’s assets.

The Appellate Division, Second Department, took up the issue of first impression in the fight over Dianne Edwards’ estate and whether her son-in-law Brandon Palladino, who pleaded to manslaughter after her strangulation death, was entitled to the money from his late wife’s estate.

“If this court were to allow Brandon to inherit the assets of the decedent’s estate through Deanna’s estate, it would be rewarding Brandon’s criminal behavior,” Justice L. Priscilla Hall (See Profile) wrote for the panel in Matter of Edwards, 2012-07966. “This court will not put its imprimatur on Brandon’s efforts to gain from his admittedly criminal conduct.”

Wednesday’s ruling affirms a decision by Suffolk County Surrogate John Czygier (See Profile) who said Palladino forfeited his claim on the assets through his conduct.

Justices Thomas Dickerson (See Profile), John Leventhal (See Profile) and Plummer Lott (See Profile) joined Hall. The case was argued March 31.

High school sweethearts Deanna Edwards Palladino and Brandon Palladino married in 2007.

In December 2008, Brandon Palladino went into the home of his mother-in-law, Dianne Edwards, for the purpose of taking jewelry from her jewelry box. Edwards returned home and the pair got into a fight.

While Edwards struggled with Palladino, he put her into a chokehold that proved fatal.

Palladino pleaded to first degree manslaughter, claiming he intended to seriously hurt Edwards, but not kill her. He is serving a 25-year prison sentence and is appealing his conviction.

Deanna Palladino was not criminally charged in her mother’s death and maintained her husband was innocent.

Edwards named Deanna, her only child, as her sole beneficiary.

Deanna Palladino died of an accidental drug overdose a little more than a year after her mother died. Deanna had no will at the time of her death and none of her mother’s assets had yet been distributed to her.

Deanna was survived by her distributee, Brandon Palladino. Her estate consisted only of her inheritance.

Brandon named his mother, Donna DiRusso, as administrator of his wife’s estate.

During proceedings for the judicial settlement of Dianne Edwards’ estate, her estranged sister, Donna Larsen, filed objections.

She argued Brandon Palladino lost his stake on the assets that would pass to him by virtue of his conviction. She asked for a ruling naming her as the sole heir of her sister’s estate.

In March 2012, Czygier rejected DiRusso’s motion to dismiss the objections and partially granted Larsen’s summary judgment bid.

He said Brandon Palladino forfeited his claim and ordered the distribution of assets to Deanna Palladino’s estate only to pay outstanding creditors. Otherwise, the funds transferred to Deanna’s estate that were traceable to her mother would be held by DiRusso during her son’s criminal appeal process.

DiRusso appealed and the panel upheld the lower court.

The proposition that wrongdoers cannot gain from their misdeeds was “deeply rooted” in the state’s common law, Hall wrote.

She cited the 1889 state Court of Appeals decision, Riggs v. Palmer, 115 NY 506, where a grandson killed his grandfather to get his inheritance.

The so-called Riggs rule has been applied in a range of scenarios, she said, like forfeited rights to insurance policies and illegal contracts.

Though it was clear Brandon Palladino could not directly inherit Edwards’ estate, Hall said there was no appellate precedent on whether Riggs applied to indirect inheritance through the estate of someone not implicated in the killing.

Hall looked to a 2010 Second Department ruling, Campbell v. Thomas, 73 AD3d 103, that arose from a younger temporary caregiver’s hasty marriage to a 72-year-old man suffering from terminal prostate cancer and severe dementia.

In the litigation that followed, the Campbell court used the Riggs rule to say the caregiver gave up her right of election by virtue of her wrongdoing.

Hall also pointed to a ruling from an Illinois appeals court, In re Estate of Vallerius, 259 Ill App 3d 350. That court forbade a man from collecting his grandmother’s assets directly or indirectly through the estate of the man’s dead mother. Though the man did not kill his grandmother, he killed her friend while his brother killed the grandmother.

Like both cited cases, Hall said there was a “clear causal link” in the current matter. “But for Brandon’s killing of the decedent, the estate of Deanna Palladino would not likely include any assets from the decedent’s estate,” said Hall.

DiRusso complained that applying Riggs to the case would present enforceability problems. For example, she questioned if Brandon Palladino was still blocked from inheritance if Deanna Palladino invested the money in a house and died 10 years after her mother’s death.

Hall refused to take up the hypothetical situation.

“The Riggs doctrine is not amenable to a bright-line rule,” she wrote, later adding, “Different facts and circumstances may lead to different results, but that does not prevent this court from applying the Riggs doctrine where no speculation is required to see a clear causal connection between the wrongdoing and the benefits sought.”

Mindy Smolevitz and Sally Donahue, partners at Jaspan Schlesinger in Garden City represented DiRusso. Donahue declined to comment.

Richard Haley of Haley Weinblatt & Calcagni in Islandia represented Larsen. He did not respond to a request for comment.