Poisonous Estate Planning

Authored by: Dorothy J. Santos

Here’s a case for making sure you choose the right spouse and friends in life.

A New York State court recently held a widow and her two friends liable in connection with the production of a “sham” Will for the widow’s deceased husband and its admission to probate.  The court’s decision illustrates a terrible family tragedy and the grave consequences of failing to follow the law in this area and doing “favors” for friends or family.

After the death of the widow’s husband in 2005, the widow convinced her two friends to witness a fake Will for the decedent backdated to 2003.  The widow subsequently offered the fake Will for probate and her two friends executed Attesting Witness Affidavits in support thereof containing false information.  Such an affidavit from witnesses usually states that the witness saw the testator sign the Will, was in the presence of the testator (& the other witness) when he or she signed the Will and that the testator was competent when the Will was executed.

Under a bit of pressure from law enforcement officials, the widow’s two friends came clean about the circumstances surrounding the sham Will when they were given immunity in exchange for cooperating and testifying against the widow in her criminal prosecution for the decedent’s murder.  The widow was subsequently convicted of her husband’s murder by poisoning him with anti-freeze!!

During the civil suit, after admitting to falsely witnessing the fake Will and signing Affidavits containing false information, the widow’s friends offered “poor me” apologies to the decedent’s son, his sole heir and distributee under New York law by reason of the widow’s murder of the decedent.  In the judge’s opinion, such apologies evoked only “a feeling a nausea and an urge to vomit.”  One friend of the widow testified that she was just trying to do her friend a favor and that she did not understand the legal ramifications of her actions.

Although the widow’s two friends “skated away from their criminal responsibility through the receipt of immunity,” the judge refused to allow them to escape civil responsibility to the decedent’s son.  The judge ordered the widow and her two friends to pay the decedent’s son compensatory damages equaling the value of the decedent’s estate less certain deductions and $250,000 in punitive damages since the “conduct of all three defendants was so repugnant and reprehensible so as to satisfy the threshold of moral culpability necessary to allow the imposition of punitive damages.”  In addition, the Court awarded reasonable attorney’s fees to the decedent’s son given the “egregious conduct” of the widow and her two friends.

The widow is currently serving a 47-year-to-life sentence for second-degree murder and attempted murder.  She also received 1⅓ years for filing a false instrument in connection with the sham Will. 

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