Attorneys Glen Waldman and Benjamin Keime recently won a heavily contested bench trial, ripe with drama and intrigue.
Their client, Robert Jacobowitz, had been unknowingly named the primary beneficiary of his long-time partner John Sala’s estate. When Sala passed away, his siblings sought to acquire the majority of his estate for themselves as his next of kin, since their brother had never married Jacobowitz and a will wasn’t produced. In what they called an act of generosity, Sala’s siblings, Vito and Frances, agreed to give Jacobowitz a fraction of their brother’s estate if he renounced all of his rights. Without knowledge of Sala’s will, Jacobowitz accepted the siblings’ offer. One year after Sala passed away, though, Jacobowitz found the will wedged behind a piece of bedroom furniture.
The will showed that Sala had left the vast majority of his estate to him. A small bequest of $10,000 was left to brother Vito and $1 was left to sister Frances. Further review of the will revealed that it had been notarized 30 years earlier by Vito’s wife Donna. Jacobowitz sued the siblings to set aside the agreement and claim his rightful share of Sala’s estate.
At trial, Waldman and Keime were able to prove that all the money Vito received from his brother’s estate had been put into accounts for Donna to keep the money hidden from Vito’s creditors. When Donna took the stand, she swore that she had no recollection of notarizing the will, didn’t know the document was a will and had absolutely never told her husband about it. During cross examination, however, she conceded that she had been told by John not to tell anyone about the will and she had told her husband Vito that she had notarized documents for his brother, while still maintaining (which the court found not to be credibly) that she never revealed the existence of the will to her husband. Yet, it was revealed that in the weeks after Sala’s death, on more than one occasion, Donna asked Jacobowitz whether he had found a will (the same will she swore she had no recollection of). Also, Frances’ son was named the executor of the estate and swore in court filings that he had made a diligent effort to locate the will. Under cross examination, he admitted that he had done nothing to try to locate the will and just collected his $20,000 as the executor.
The court, in a decision rendered last week, found that Jacobowitz proved, by clear and convincing evidence, that the Agreement that Sala’s siblings obtained from him was the product of fraud and held that the Agreement must be set aside. The court also found that Sala’s siblings knew about their brother’s will or recklessly misrepresented their knowledge, but kept that information from Jacobowitz to induce him to enter into the Agreement. Proceedings are ongoing to admit the will to probate and recover the money Vito and Frances received by fraud and artifice, so it can be awarded to Jacobowitz.