Appellate Court Discusses Rambo – No, Not the Movie

A recent Appellate Division case tells an interesting tale of human tragedy, mixing in criminal and estate administration law.  Roy Rambo graduated from dental school in 1977.  Along with his wife, Linda, a dental hygienist, he established a dental practice in Warren County.  Apparently, the practice did fairly well, since they amassed joint assets of approximately $3,000,000.  In 2002, police responded to a 911 call to the dental office.  Upon arrival, the officers discovered the body of Linda Rambo and a firearm, and Roy told the officers that he had “just shot his wife”.

Under New Jersey’s “Slayer Statute” in effect at the time of the shooting, if an heir “criminally and intentionally kills” a person, the heir cannot inherit any assets from the victim.  Roy and Linda’s son was appointed as administrator of his late mother’s estate and sought the assistance of the New Jersey Chancery Court to freeze his mother’s estate and prevent Roy Rambo from accessing it until the verdict in the criminal trial.  But the son went further, and froze his father’s funds as well.  This prevented his father from paying for his legal defense. As a result, his father was declared indigent and entitled to the services of a public defender in his criminal case.

In 2005, Roy was convicted of murdering his wife.  Thereafter, the son successfully sued Roy for wrongful death and obtained a judgment against Roy for $6,000,000.  Later, the Chancery Court determined that Roy’s share of the joint estate was only $290,000, and awarded this amount to the son as a partial offset of the $6,000,000 verdict. Roy appealed, arguing that he should have had access to the marital estate to defend the criminal charges, a denial of his right to counsel under the Sixth Amendment.  The Appellate Court denied the appeal, holding that the restraints on access to the marital fund were directly supported by the version of the Slayer Statute in effect at that time.

It is not clear from the case how the court determined that Roy’s share of the $3,000,000 marital estate was only $290,000.  Presumably, that was the value of his own property that he brought into the marriage.  But it is likely that a substantial portion of the marital estate was a result of the fruits of Roy’s labor, who was a dentist.  Whatever the reasoning for placing such a small value on his share, I wonder if the Court got it right in this case.  The Slayer Statute said if an heir “criminally and intentionally” killed a person, he cannot inherit from that person.  But being presumed innocent until proven guilty is a cornerstone of our criminal judicial system.  Prior to his conviction, there seems little basis for preventing Roy from accessing his own property and his one-half of any joint property.  The Appellate Court held that he had received a good defense, and I have no doubt that our public defender system is excellent.  But anyone is entitled to the best defense he or she can afford, and it seems that Roy was hampered in providing himself with that defense.

Of course, you are free to disagree and I welcome your comments.  Who said estate and trust law is boring?


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