Occasionally, some very interesting cases arise in the world of trusts and estates. After all, there’s money, family intrigue, and not infrequently an element of celebrity. But every now and again comes a case that may lack familiar names, but that is just too full of pathos and irony to be overlooked. One such case was recently reported in The New York Law Journal (“Punitive Damages Levied for Deception Over Will,” 12/22/2011) (accessed via web edition; subscription may be required). In Castor v. Pulaski, 2011 NY Slip Op 52250(U), tried before the Supreme Court, Onondaga County, we enter a world of murder and deception and, rather surprisingly, come out the other side with some sound advice regarding the complexity of Wills and an entreaty to avoid the hazards of DIY Wills.
David Castor Sr. died in August 2005, apparently leaving a Will that was very generous to Stacey Castor, his wife of only a few years. Nothing unusual so far. The principal plaintiff in the case was David Castor Jr., the aggrieved son of a former marriage of the decedent’s. Stacey, although a named defendant in the case, did not participate in the trial. She was serving 47 years to life in the correctional facility in Bedford Hills, New York for murdering her husband, David Sr., by poisoning him with anti-freeze. The good news for Stacey was that she received only 1 and 1/3 additional years for having forged her husband’s Will and submitted it for probate. The forgery would not have been possible absent the assistance of Stacey’s friends, Lynn and Paul Pulaski, defendants in the case. In 2005, shortly after David Sr.‘s death, the Pulaskis agreed with Stacey to sign as witnesses a purported Will of his, backdated to 2003. They later signed affidavits stating that they had observed the decedent sign the Will and that all formalities of law were complied with in its execution.
Castor v. Pulaski was tried before a judge, rather than a jury. Accordingly, it was the judge’s province to evaluate the testimony of witnesses in the case. The Pulaskis must have done an especially poor job of trying to persuade the court that, in assisting Stacey to concoct a forged Will, they were innocent victims who were only trying to help a friend. In his opinion, Justice Anthony J. Paris’s evaluation of the Pulaskis’ testimony was more visceral than judicious: “The only feeling evoked was a feeling of nausea and an urge to vomit.” You won’t be surprised to learn that David Jr. prevailed in the case. He was awarded the decedent’s net estate of roughly $125,000, together with punitive damages of $250,000, and the defendants were ordered to pay his attorney’s fees. Because she had murdered her husband, Stacey was ineligible to receive any portion of her husband’s estate. Commenting on the case, David Jr.‘s lawyer, James A. Meggesto of Syracuse, stressed the importance of carefully observing the often formalistic requirements for the valid execution of a Will:
Attestation of a will is an area we don’t take lightly. There are some areas of the law where we have less formality. But this is not one of them. It is an area where there is a solemn responsibility and something that needs to be looked at with that amount of seriousness. It reinforces that this is an area where people should seek the advice of an attorney.