$25 million probate battle pits Florida's slayer statute against its pretermitted-spouse statute

A NY Times article entitled A Lurid Aftermath to a Hedge Fund Manager’s Life reports on a brewing dispute over a Jupiter, FL estate reportedly "worth at least $25 million."  The following excerpts from the linked-to article give us a sense of what kind of case this will be (ugly!) and where the battle lines are being drawn:

JUPITER, Fla. — A life of private jets and black-tie balls ended with Seth Tobias, a wealthy investment manager and a familiar presence on CNBC, floating face down in the swimming pool of his mansion here.

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Mr. Tobias, who was 44 years old, had apparently suffered a heart attack, his brother Spence said at the time. The police did not consider his death suspicious.

But now an unfolding drama over Mr. Tobias’s estate is providing a lurid account of fast money and faster living in the volatile world of hedge funds. Mr. Tobias’s four brothers and Mrs. Tobias are locked in a legal battle over the estate, which is worth at least $25 million. And, in a civil complaint, they have gone so far as to accuse her of murder.

The brothers, Samuel, Spence, Scott and Joshua, claim Mrs. Tobias drugged her husband and lured him into the pool. Bill Ash, a former assistant to Mr. Tobias, said he had told the police that Mrs. Tobias confessed to him that she had cajoled her husband into the water while he was on a cocaine binge with a promise of sex with a male go-go dancer known as Tiger.

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At the center of the dispute is Mr. Tobias’s will, which designates his brothers as beneficiaries but does not name Mrs. Tobias. She contends that she is entitled to the estate because the will was signed before the couple married. In court filings, the Tobias brothers invoke Florida’s “slayer statute,” which prohibits inheritance by a person who murders someone from whom they stand to inherit. They claim she “intentionally killed” her husband “by asphyxiation and drowning.”

Florida's "pretermitted spouse" statute:

Mrs. Tobias' argument is based on Florida's version of the pretermitted spouse rule.  Here's how that argument is played out:

Mr. Tobias married Mrs. Tobias after making his will.  As such, pursuant to F.S. §732.301, regardless of what the will says, Mrs. Tobias is entitled receive a share of his $25+ million estate equal in value to that which she would have received if Mr. Tobias had died intestate, unless 1) provision has been made for, or waived by, Mrs. Tobias by a nuptial agreement; 2) Mrs. Tobias is otherwise provided for in the will (she apparently is not); or 3) the will discloses an intention not to make provision for Mrs. Tobias.


Pursuant to F.S. §732.102, the intestate share to which Mrs. Tobias would be entitled is as follows: a) If there are no living lineal descendants of Mr. Tobias, she gets the entire intestate estate; b) if there are surviving lineal descendants of Mr. Tobias, all of whom are also Mrs. Tobias' lineal descendants, she gets  the first $60,000 of the intestate estate, plus one-half of the balance of the intestate estate; and c) if there are surviving lineal descendants of Mr. Tobias, one or more of whom are not lineal descendants of Mrs. Tobias, she gets one-half of the intestate estate.

Florida's "slayer" statute:

Mr. Tobias' surviving brothers argue that Mrs. Tobias murdered her husband, and thus she shouldn't get a penny of the estate under Florida's version of the "slayer" rule, a doctrine I've written about before [see here, here, here]. 

Florida’s slayer statutes are found at F.S. § 732.802 (probate estates) and F.S. § 736.1104 (trust estates).

Although a murder conviction would make things easier for the Tobias brothers, it's not a pre-condition to their lawsuit. If Mrs. Tobias were convicted of the murder, that would conclusively divest her of all of her interest in Mr. Tobias' estate; but if Mrs. Tobias were acquitted of the murder (or never charged), the probate court could still weigh the evidence and determine "by the greater weight of the evidence" whether or not she should be divested. Here is the key language from F.S. § 732.802:

(1) A surviving person who unlawfully and intentionally kills or participates in procuring the death of the decedent is not entitled to any benefits under the will or under the Florida Probate Code, and the estate of the decedent passes as if the killer had predeceased the decedent.

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(5) A final judgment of conviction of murder in any degree is conclusive for purposes of this section. In the absence of a conviction of murder in any degree, the court may determine by the greater weight of the evidence whether the killing was unlawful and intentional for purposes of this section.

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