Justice Cynthia Y. Cobbs
Justice Cynthia Y. Cobbs

A woman who lied under oath during her mother’s murder investigation is still entitled to inherit her estate, a 1st District appeals panel held.

The panel’s opinion issued Thursday affirms a Cook County judge’s ruling that Darota Opalinska Chaban is still entitled to the property despite lying about her whereabouts surrounding the June 2007 murder of her mother Irene Opalinska.

Cook County Public Administrator David A. Epstein argued Chaban’s marriage and “unclean hands” should bar her from collecting the inheritance because it would indirectly benefit her husband, who was eventually convicted of the murder.

However, both courts held such relief is a matter of public policy that applies only to those directly involved in a murder — not those who lie about where they were when the murder occurred.

Darota and William Chaban married in Las Vegas in early June 2007. Darota’s mother was initially upset about the news, which the couple delivered about four days later.

Five days after receiving the news — and nine after the marriage — the couple found Opalinska dead in her condominium.

Chaban told investigating police, and later a grand jury, that she was with her husband most of the last day Opalinska was seen alive and never visited her mother’s condo that day. However, she admitted she lied on her husband’s direction once investigators showed her phone records that placed her at the Far North Side condo three days before her mother was found.

Chaban was later charged with perjury and obstruction of justice. Meanwhile, her husband was charged and convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to 45 years in prison.

In 2008, Chaban filed a petition in Cook County Circuit Court to probate Opalinska’s will. The court appointed Chaban as the estate’s administrator, but she later resigned, at which point the court appointed Epstein to administer the estate.

Epstein argued Section 2-6 of the state’s Probate Act — commonly called the “slayer statute” — barred Chaban’s inheritance because it would indirectly benefit her mother’s actual slayer since the two are still married.

Circuit Judge Karen L. O’Malley denied Epstein’s petition in November 2014, finding Chaban could still inherit the estate because no evidence existed that directly tied her to Opalinska’s murder.

On appeal, Epstein argued that although Chaban may not have murdered her mother, any property she inherits would indirectly benefit Opalinska’s murderer and is therefore barred under the slayer statute.

The panel’s 13-page opinion authored by Justice Cynthia Y. Cobbs rejected Epstein’s argument, holding the statute’s plain language does not bar the inheritance.

The statute precludes someone who “intentionally and unjustifiably causes the death of another” from receiving property, the panel held. And if Chaban’s husband received any of her mother’s property, Cobbs wrote, it would be because she transferred it to him — “not because of, or by reason of, Irene’s death.”

“Further, the statute states that property ‘shall pass as if the person causing the death died before the decedent,’” Cobbs wrote. “If we apply the words of the statute to our case, and consider Chaban to have predeceased Irene, Darota would still inherit Irene’s estate.”

The panel ruled Epstein seeks to disinherit a party that was never accused of murder “on the off chance that the murderer might receive an indirect benefit.” However, the panel ruled, the statute’s language does not bar inheritance for anyone but a person’s murderer or murderers.

And preventing every instance in which a murderer could own a victim’s property would breach the statute’s scope, the panel held.

“If we were to prohibit all instances where the murdering party might eventually receive some indirect benefit from the inheritance, we question just how far this concept might reach,” Cobbs wrote. “For example, if a son kills his parents, must we disinherit all if his siblings if they plan to share a portion of the inheritance with him?”

Although Chaban may have had reason to know her husband caused Opalinska’s death, the panel held, the statute refers strictly to potential beneficiaries — a category in which her husband does not fall.

“The [a]ct does not give direction regarding cooperating with law enforcement authorities when the murderer, who is not a beneficiary, may receive an indirect benefit,” Cobbs wrote.

And even if Chaban’s husband had been a beneficiary, the panel held, nothing in the statute bars her inheritance for her lack of cooperation.

“We will not presume that the legislature intended for a holder of property who failed to cooperate with law enforcement officials to be disinherited,” Cobbs wrote. “Clearly, had the legislature so intended, it could have specified a prohibition for a non-cooperating property holder in the same manner as it specified a prohibition for the murderer.”

Joel A. Brodsky, owner of the Law Office of Joel A. Brodsky who represented Chaban, said his client may not have been as fully forthcoming as possible during her mother’s death investigation, so “the natural inclination that someone would have is to want to assume, or want there to be, some sort of penalty for bad behavior, so to speak.”

However, he said, the appellate court was right to rule such relief cannot be found in the statue Epstein cited.

“The consequences of starting to move down that path are potentially dire,” Brodsky said. “You’re really bringing what should be a hard and fast rule of law into the area where people can start trying to disinherit others because of far-flung equitable theories, and that’s not what the legislature ever intended to do with this statute.”

Brodsky said the court’s Domestic Relations and Probate Divisions are the most contentious for litigation and “broadening the law like this would only make it potentially more contentious than it already is — which I think would be an unfortunate side effect.”

Epstein was represented by Gary A. Weintraub, owner of Gary A Weintraub P.C. in Northfield, and Thomas More Leinenweber, a partner at Leinenweber, Baroni & Daffada LLC. Neither attorney could be reached for comment.

The case is In re the Estate of Irene Opalinska, 2015 IL App (1st) 143407.