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New York Trusts & Estates Litigation

Court Awards Compensatory and Punitive Damages, and Attorney Fees, for Fraud in Probating Will

Posted in Probate

Stacey Castor (“Stacey”) made national news in 2007, arising from the 2005 murder of her husband, David Castor, Sr., (“Decedent’) as well as the attempted murder of her own daughter. Stacey was convicted of the murder. Having apparently also murdered a prior husband, Stacey became known as the “Black Widow.”

The Castor case recently moved from the criminal to a civil forum, in the form of a lawsuit brought by the son of the Decedent, David Castor, Jr. (“David” or “Plaintiff”), against Stacey and Lynn and Paul Pulaski ("Pulaskis”). David brought the suit in Supreme Court, Onondaga County, seeking recovery from the Pulaskis and from Stacey for fraud and conspiracy surrounding the probate of the Last Will and Testament of the Decedent. After the death of Decedent, Stacey had convinced the Pulaskis to sign their names as witnesses to a false will, benefiting her. The forged Will left Decedent’s estate to Stacey, and was considered in the criminal prosecution of Stacey as a prime motive for the murder of her husband.

The Supreme Court, Onondaga County handed down its decision on December 14, 2011.

During the course of the trial, the Pulaskis had testified that they had been duped by Stacey, and that their motives were good. Lynn Pulaski testified that Stacey had been her best friend. She had felt terrible because of what she had then thought was the suicide of Stacey’s husband, and she wanted to help Stacey out settling the Decedent’s estate.

The Supreme Court Justice (Paris, J.) was not buying it, concluding that,

[b]ased on the evidence and all the pleadings that make up the record of this particular case, including their testimony, it is obvious that Defendants Pulaski were not innocent pawns. They knew what they were doing was wrong and bore false witness to both the Will and Attestation Clause without any hesitancy or reservation. Thereafter, they executed the Attesting Witness Affidavits that they also knew were false. From the record, it is clear that they kept these falsehoods from the Surrogate’s Court and Plaintiff to his detriment throughout the estate proceedings. Defendants Pulaski only ‘came clean’ when the District Attorney’s investigators came knocking on their door and they were given immunity in return for their cooperation and testimony in the criminal prosecution of Co-Defendant Stacey Castor.

The Court continued:

[w]hile the genesis of this action is the heinous crime committed by Defendant Stacey Castor, Defendants Pulaski compounded the crime through their admitted dishonesty… Plaintiff was contesting the purported Last Will and Testament of his father, David W. Castor, Sr., being offered for probate by Defendant Stacey Castor. He withdrew his objections, as he credibly testified, in the face of Defendant Pulaskis’ subsequent execution of the Attesting Witness Affidavits… Defendants Pulaski admitted that they signed in 2005 as witnesses to Decedent’s Will which was dated 2003. Their reaffirmance of this falsehood by signing the Attesting Witness Affidavits, not only harmed Plaintiff, but also subjected the Surrogate’s Court to needless and unwarranted proceedings, thereby detracting from the orderly administration of that Court’s normal, proper and legitimate proceedings.

The Supreme Court went on to find that all three Defendants, the Pulaskis and Stacey, were jointly and severally liable to Plaintiff. The Court assessed both compensatory and punitive damages against all the Defendants, and not just against Stacey, the murderer. As to the Pulaskis, the Court noted that their actions had “compelled Plaintiff to withdraw his objections to the probate of the Will and hoodwinked and deceived the Surrogate’s Court into probating a fraudulent instrument.” Their conduct “was so repugnant and reprehensible so as to satisfy the threshold of moral culpability necessary to allow the imposition of punitive damages."
 

Finally, in an interesting and significant further holding, the Court determined that the Plaintiff was entitled to the recovery of his attorney fees against the Defendants, including the Pulaskis.

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