June 4, 2012
IN THE MATTER OF THE ESTATE OF LINDA ANN RAMBO, DECEASED.
On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Warren County, Docket No. P-02-438-D.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted September 14, 2011
Before Judges Fuentes and Graves.
In 2002, defendant Roy L. Rambo, Jr. was indicted and charged with murdering his wife Linda Ann Rambo. While defendant was awaiting trial on this criminal charge, Bruce M. Rambo, defendant and decedent's only son, obtained an order from the Chancery Division pursuant to the so-called "Slayer Statute,"*fn1 restraining defendant from utilizing any assets from the marital estate to fund his criminal defense. The court appointed Bruce Rambo administrator of his mother's estate, and the matter proceeded in the Chancery Division from 2002 through 2005.
Defendant was tried before a jury and, on February 9, 2005, was
convicted of murdering his wife. The court sentenced him to a term of
forty years, with thirty years of parole ineligibility.*fn2
Although the exact date of filing is not clear in the record,
sometime between 2002 and 2005 Bruce Rambo filed a wrongful death and
survivor action against defendant on behalf of himself and as
representative of his mother's estate. On July 6, 2005, the Law
Division in Somerset County entered judgment against defendant in the
wrongful death suit and awarded plaintiffs $6,310,000 in damages.
In this appeal, defendant challenges an order entered by the Chancery Division on May 17, 2010 equitably distributing the assets of his former marital estate. Defendant argues that the court misapplied the Slayer Statute and improperly prevented him from accessing funds that were rightly his, resulting in the deprivation of his Sixth Amendment right to counsel of his choice in the criminal case.
Defendant and decedent married in 1973. After graduating from dental school in 1977, defendant established a dental practice in the Township of Pohatcong; decedent served as a dental assistant and bookkeeper in the office. During the marriage, defendant and decedent acquired several parcels of real estate in New Jersey (referred to as "the Ohio Avenue property" and "the New Brunswick Avenue property") and in North Carolina, as well as extensive personal property and investment accounts. We will refer to these assets collectively as "the marital estate."
On August 16, 2002, officers from the Pohatcong Police Department reported to defendant's dental office in response to a 911 call. Upon arrival, the officers discovered decedent's body. Defendant told the officers that he "had just shot his wife;" a firearm was found nearby. Defendant was arrested at the scene.
While defendant was detained awaiting trial, Bruce Rambo filed a verified complaint and order to show cause in the Warren County Chancery Division, requesting that the court appoint a temporary and/or permanent administrator of decedent's estate*fn3 and restraining the disposition of any marital asset pending the outcome of defendant's criminal trial. The marital estate was valued at approximately $3,000,000.
On August 28, 2002, the court appointed Bruce Rambo as permanent administrator of his late mother's estate, and directed him to provide the court with an inventory and valuation of the estate by October 4, 2002. The order further provided that:
(1) all assets of Roy L. Rambo will be frozen, wherever located; (2) Roy L. Rambo or any of his agents or representatives is enjoined from entering onto any property owned either jointly or individually by Roy L. Rambo and Linda Ann Rambo; and (3) Roy L.
Rambo is enjoined from expending any sums of money owned individually or as a marital asset[.]
On October 9, 2002, defendant was declared indigent and entitled to the services of a public defender by the court overseeing his criminal case. In response to the Chancery Division's request, on October 30, 2002, counsel for the Administrator submitted a letter brief providing "a more detailed legal analysis of the status of the ownership of the marital property owned by Roy L. Rambo and Linda A. Rambo . . . as well as the Administrator's authority to sell such property."
Counsel for the Administrator argued that "[p]ursuant to N.J.S.A. 3B:7-1; 7-2 and the decision in In re Karas, 192 N.J. [Super.] 107 (Law Div. 1983)[, aff'd as modified, 197 N.J. Super. 642 (App. Div. 1984), certif. denied, 101 N.J. 228 (1985)]," Bruce Rambo is "entitled to the Estate of Linda A. Rambo . . . i.e., one-half of the entire Marital Property, while the other half of the Marital Property must be held in constructive trust in the name of Roy L. Rambo . . . on behalf of Bruce." Counsel maintained that "the Administrator may sell any and all of the Marital Property, including, but not limited to real and personal property, provided that he set aside half of all proceeds for the purpose of the constructive trust." Counsel acknowledged, however, that "Bruce's entitlement to any of the Marital Property is contingent upon the conviction of Dr. Rambo or a determination by this Court that the killing was intentional."
Although initially appearing pro se, defendant eventually retained counsel to represent him in matters concerning the management and distribution of the marital estate. On July 1, 2003, defendant's counsel formally entered his appearance and, in an order to show cause, petitioned the court "to compel the sale of assets, to replace the current administrator for the estate, and to permit the release of funds so that Dr. Rambo may retain counsel of his own choosing [in the criminal trial]."*fn4
On November 7, 2003, the Chancery Division approved the sale of the New Brunswick Avenue property and denied defendant's request to release any funds from the proceeds of the sale for purposes of his criminal defense. The court ordered that the Administrator "have a reasonable time to obtain the best and highest value" for the sale of the New Brunswick Avenue property, and that proceeds from the sale "be held in trust pending the outcome of the criminal trial."*fn5
On December 3, 2003, the Chancery Division entered an order stating that counsel for the Administrator "be entitled to receive approximately one-half of their legal fees for services provided to Bruce M. Rambo with regard to the rights and interest in the Rambo Estate in the amount of $20,000.00." On April 27, 2004, the Administrator and his counsel submitted certifications to the Chancery Division, stating that the Administrator was "in dire need of funds and revenue to satisfy outstanding taxes and mortgages of the Estate." They requested that the court distribute $26,844.13 from the sale of the Ohio Avenue property to the Administrator to ensure the payoff of debts relating to the New Brunswick Avenue property.
On May 3, 2004, defendant submitted a pro se response, requesting that the Chancery Division appoint an independent administrator to manage the sale of any property of the marital estate based on defendant's assertion that the Administrator "has mismanaged said Estate and seriously depleted its value." Defendant also argued that the court erred in freezing all assets of the marital estate, thus preventing him from using these funds to retain private counsel to defend him in the criminal trial.
On June 21, 2004, a different Chancery Division judge directed counsel for the Estate of Linda Rambo to file a brief addressing the division and distribution of the marital estate, distributing $21,258.91 derived from the sale of the Ohio Avenue to pay debts of the New Brunswick Avenue property, and directed the Administrator to provide a "complete accounting of all monies he has spent on behalf of the Estate, including proof of all payments made, no later than July 2, 2004."
After both counsel for the Estate and the Administrator complied with the court's order, the court found that an equitable distribution hearing was necessary to determine and settle the pending distribution of the marital estate. In response, the Administrator moved to stay this hearing pending the outcome of defendant's criminal trial. The court granted the stay by order dated December 13, 2004.
On February 9, 2005, a jury convicted defendant of murdering his wife Linda Rambo, and of possessing a weapon for an unlawful purpose. The criminal court sentenced defendant to a term of forty years, with a thirty-year period of parole ineligibility. The remaining ten years would be subject to the provisions of the No Early Release Act, N.J.S.A. 2C:43-7.2, requiring defendant to serve eighty-five percent of the ten years before becoming eligible for parole.
On July 6, 2005, the Law Division in Somerset County awarded Bruce Rambo $6,310,000 in compensatory and economic damages pursuant to the wrongful death and survival claim against defendant. On August 5, 2005, the Chancery Division entered an order granting the Administrator's motion to transfer the deed to the New Brunswick Avenue property to Bruce Rambo as surviving heir.*fn6
On May 17, 2010, following an equitable distribution hearing, the Chancery Division entered an order stating as follows:
1. That defendant shall be and is hereby awarded by way of equitable distribution of the marital assets the sum of $290,314.51.
2. That the debt of $6,000,000, not including interest, which defendant owes the Estate [pursuant to the wrongful death and survival claim judgment], shall be credited $290,314.51, making the debt owed to the Estate $5,709,685.49, not including interest.
3. That the administrator of the Estate shall turn over any of the clothing and pre-marital property belonging to the defendant . . . to the defendant's sister. The defendant shall arrange for his sister or her agent to pick up such property from the Estate.
4. That the defendant shall be responsible for paying any taxes the Estate incurs due to the distribution of the I.R.A. to the Estate.
Defendant now appeals from this order.
Defendant argues that the Chancery Division erred when it applied N.J.S.A. 3B:7-1 to deny his request for the release of funds from the marital estate to cover the cost of his criminal defense. We disagree and affirm on this issue substantially for the reasons expressed by the Chancery Division. The restraints issued, which prevented defendant from accessing the marital property to fund his defense against charges of murdering his wife, are directly supported by N.J.S.A. 3B:7-1, which, at the time stated:
A surviving spouse, heir or devisee who criminally and intentionally kills the decedent is not entitled to any benefits under a testate or intestate estate and the estate of decedent passes as if the killer had predeceased the decedent. Property appointed by the will of the decedent to or for the benefit of the killer passes as if the killer had predeceased the decedent.
N.J.S.A. 3B:7-2, further provides that:
Any joint tenant who criminally and intentionally kills another joint tenant thereby effects a severance of the interest of the decedent so that the share of the decedent passes as his property and the killer has no rights by survivorship. This provision applies to joint tenancies and tenancies by the entirety, joint accounts in banks, savings and loan associations, credit unions and other institutions, and any other form of co-ownership with survivorship incidents.
As the Court made clear in Neiman v. Hurff, 11 N.J. 55, 60-62 (1952), the common law doctrine codified in this statute is "so essential to the observance of morality and justice [that it] has been universally recognized in the laws of civilized communities for centuries and is as old as equity." Defendant was not denied competent counsel in his criminal case. To permit defendant to use the proceeds of the marital estate to pay the cost of private counsel would be a perversion of justice and in direct violation of the public policy expressed by the Legislature in N.J.S.A. 3B:7-5.
Defendant's remaining arguments, including those attacking the Chancery Division's decision as a denial of his right to counsel under the Sixth Amendment, lack sufficient merit to warrant a discussion in a written opinion. R. 2:11-3(e)(1)(E).