By Solid Serenity Legal Solutions
A husband who cannot have a divorce finalized due to his wife successfully having the final decree set aside; a girlfriend who kidnaps the wife- in the husband’s car- and then kills first the wife and then herself; and a wife who had two divorce attempts by the husband set aside. These were the characters in a recent probate case in Georgia.
The question posed was whether the husband, who denies any involvement, could claim control over the wife’s estate and serve as the personal representative for the estate.
According to the Georgia Court of Appeals, the answer was a unanimous yes. The court affirmed a lower court’s decision to award the husband control over the estate and status as the personal representative.
The story of Sandra Barnett’s death is a tragic one. The wife of Buster Barnett, former NFL player for the Buffalo Bills, was killed in 2015 after a drawn-out divorce attempt by Buster. The two were married in 1987 but 24 years later in 2011 Buster filed for divorce.
In 2012 he was granted the divorce after Sandra failed to show up to the bench trial. However, she later disputed the ruling on the grounds that she never received notice after they were sent to the wrong address. He filed again for divorce in 2015.
One month after the second divorce attempt was filed, Buster’s girlfriend, Lisa Brown, kidnapped Sandra at gunpoint from her home near Atlanta. The kidnapping turned into a police chase that led into Alabama. The chase ended when Lisa shot first Sandra and then herself.
Buster Barnett filed a petition to probate Sandra’s will. Donna Brooks, Sandra’s sister, soon filed her own petition to probate, invoking the “Slayer Statute” to disqualify the husband from taking over the wife’s estate.
Brooks argued that Buster had been having an affair with Lisa for two years, that the two had been living together for months leading up to the murder, that the kidnapping took place in Buster’s car, that Buster had been deceiving Sandra in regard to their marital assets, and finally that Buster was aware that Lisa struggled with mental illness and specifically had violent and suicidal tendencies and that the two conspired together to have Sandra murdered.
Buster argued that he had no involvement in or knowledge of the murder or what Lisa had been planning. Georgia law states that there must be a judicial condemnation to prevent someone from their interest in a murdered decedent’s estate. There was no evidence presented that Buster knew about Brown’s plan, encouraged her to carry out her plan, or that he had done anything else that would have involved him in the plans. And since Buster was not convicted in neither the criminal or civil courts, there was nothing to prevent him from moving forward and probating the estate.
The same would happen in Oklahoma without estate planning documents to the contrary. Unless the spouse were convicted of the crime, the spouse would be entitled to half of the assets without estate planning, and an equal division if the decedent had children from another relationship.
If you have any concern about how your assets would pass if something happened to you, and the Court stepping in as they have here, reach out to a trusted advisor to make your plan today!