Edward R. Weinstein, Esq.Edward R. Weinstein, Esq.

If I Am Murdered By My Spouse, May My Estate Seek The Same Claims That I Would Have Had Under a New Jersey Divorce?

One thing I have learned over the years, both professionally as a lawyer but in my personal life as well, sometimes marriages can be more difficult than a divorce. I have handled many divorces that help many people find peace during my time as their New Jersey divorce attorney and into the future. Unfortunately, many couples do not seek the relief of divorce and stay in abusive and dangerous relationships. More often than not these volatile relationships end in tragedy. This was the case in Wasserman v. Schwartz.

Dr. Schwartz, a very successful dentist, violently and intentionally murdered his wife Roberta. Even though the parties were married at the time of Roberta’s death, the court ordered that in the pursuit of justice, Roberta’s estate should be entitled to the equitable distribution of the parties’ marital estate.

On March 24, 1996, Dr. Stephen Schwartz was convicted of manslaughter for killing his wife, Roberta, in their Cherry Hill home. Schwartz repeatedly struck her head and chest with a claw hammer and fire extinguisher. He was subsequently sentenced to 20 years in jail. 

Roberta’s estate brought a “Slayer Act” claim against Dr. Schwartz, under New Jersey Statute 3B:7-1. The Slayer Act ensures that an intentional killer will not be allowed to profit or benefit, either directly or indirectly, from his or her own wrongful act. After a hearing, the estate was awarded the value of those assets held in Mrs. Schwartz’ name, the value of her IRA account, and the value of her interest in assets jointly acquired or accumulated during the Schwartz 10-year marriage.

In addition, Roberta’s estate also brought a wrongful death and survival action claim against Dr. Schwartz. On January 19, 2001, a partial summary judgment was entered, Dr. Schwartz was found liable for compensatory and punitive damages, for the injuries to, and wrongful death, of his wife. Compensatory damages provide a plaintiff with the monetary amount necessary to replace what was lost, and nothing more. They differ from punitive damages, which punish a defendant for his or her conduct, as a deterrent to the future commission of such acts. In order to be awarded compensatory damages, the plaintiff must prove that he or she has suffered a legally recognizable harm that is compensable by a certain amount of money that can be objectively determined by a judge or jury.

The executor of Roberta’s estate also asserted that her estate should be entitled to an equitable distribution of the marital assets that accumulated during the Schwartz’ ten-year marriage, including Dr. Schwartz’ retirement and pension plan assets, because had Dr. Schwartz not killed Roberta, she would have divorced him and would have been entitled to an equitable distribution of their marital assets.

Between June 29 and July 11, 2001, a bench trial was held, to identify the value of all assets, either held for Dr. Schwartz, or held for his benefit, including pension and retirement accounts. The trial also sought to determine what portion belonged to the Schwartz marital estate, and portion belonged only to Dr. Schwartz. The executor of Roberta’s estate presented the expert testimony and report of Sharon J. Bishop, a certified public accountant, specializing in asset valuations and forensic accounting. Dr. Schwartz did not challenge her qualifications, and the report was received in evidence, without objection. Ms. Bishop documented all the assets that belonged in the marital estate, and concluded the value to be $929,796.

On the contrary, Dr. Schwartz asserted that all the assets held in his name belonged to him alone, and that Roberta’s estate had no entitlement to any of them. He claimed that Roberta’s estate was not entitled to any share or distribution of his American Dental Association retirement plan or his pension plan. The court however held that, no matter how Dr. Schwartz labeled the assets held in his name, if any such assets represented a benefit or profit by him, directly or indirectly, as a result of killing his wife, he must return them to his wife’s estate. The portion of the marital estate that belonged to Roberta at the time she was murdered by her husband, which was later held in his name, was part of his ill-gotten gains from killing her. Accordingly, her estate had an interest in the assets that were a part of, and grew out of her ten-year marriage, which were at the time of trial, held by Dr. Schwartz alone. That included the property and assets acquired during the course of her ten year marriage, even though they may have been titled in Dr. Schwartz’ name alone. The court relied on Carr v. Carr, in coming to its decision. Carr, held that a spouse may acquire an interest in marital property through the mutual effort that contributed to the creation, acquisition, and preservation of such property. This equitable principle is based upon notions of fairness, common decency, and good faith.

The court stressed that public policy commands that a spouse should enjoy the benefit of the assets amassed during the marriage. More importantly, public policy commands that a killer like Dr. Schwartz should not benefit from his crime. Dr. Schwartz seized his wife’s interest in their marital assets, when he intentionally killed her. In order to prevent Dr. Schwartz from benefitting from his intentional crime, the court found that the assets amassed during the Schwartz’ marriage, even those that were listed in Dr. Schwartz’ name alone, represented marital assets in which Roberta had an interest.

The court supported its conclusion with the Supreme Court opinion in Neiman v. Huff. In Neiman, the Court noted the common law doctrine that no criminal should profit from his act is essential to morality and justice, and has been recognized as law by civilized society for centuries. Common law is the unwritten law, especially of England, based on custom or court decision, as distinct from statute law. Hence, the court ordered  that the interest of Roberta in the marital property at the time of her death must be distributed to her estate.

Dr. Schwartz argued that his retirement and IRA plans should not be included as marital assets. However, according to case precedent those plans were subject to equitable distribution. Even though Roberta signed a document on July 21, 1992, that waived her right to receive survivor benefits under the American Dental Association plan that would otherwise have been paid to her upon Dr. Schwartz death, any waiver of survivor benefits by Roberta did not waive her entitlement to an equitable distribution. Any waiver of survivor benefits was irrelevant because Dr. Schwartz was not dead. The same applied to his IRA account. O July 29, 1992, Schwartz named his daughter, Jodi Chance, as the primary beneficiary to receive his IRA benefits upon his death. However, Schwartz was not dead, and therefore the plan was subject to equitable distribution.

Once the court decided upon what assets would be included in the equitable distribution, it had to decide how to actually divide the assets fairly. The court rejected the concept of an even 50/50 division, and stated that the Supreme Court has advised that each case be examined on an individual basis. The Court is to divide the marital assets in a way that will be just to the parties under all the conditions of the individual case. Any property acquired by one spouse before the date of marriage remains the property of that spouse, and does not qualify as an asset eligible for distribution in the case of a divorce. The court must consider: the duration of the marriage; the age of the parties; the income each party contributed; standard of living; each parties economic circumstances; the earning capacity of each party; the present value of the property; and any other factors the Court may deem significant. After consideration of all these factors, the court ordered a distribution to Roberta’s estate of an amount equal to one-half of the marital estate, plus the amount of taxes that would be incurred from the pension or retirement accounts of Schwartz. Therefore the Estate of Roberta Schwartz was awarded $ 681,388.

If you or a loved one is contemplating is unhappily married and seeking a divorce, please contact my office today.