Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Will Contest from Bethlehem, PA

"Prominent Pa. Attorney Among 3 Killed in Plane Crash" -- this was the headline in an Associated Press article that appeared on February 3, 2007, as posted online by ABC-6 TV, reporting a fatal aviation accident in New Bedford, Massachusetts on the evening of February 2, 2007.

A prominent Pennsylvania attorney and his wife were among three killed when a small plane crashed in bad weather near the New Bedford Regional Airport.

Peter J. Karoly, 53, of Bethlehem and his wife, Dr. Lauren Angstadt, 54, died along with their pilot, according to Karoly's brother, lawyer John Karoly of Allentown, Pa.

Peter Karoly was a prominent plaintiff's lawyer in Allentown who was also known as an owner of the Allentown Ambassadors, a now-defunct minor-league baseball team. Angstadt was an Allentown endodontist -- a specialist in root canal treatment. The couple had no children. * * *

The plane left the Lehigh Valley at about 2 p.m. Friday, flew into Boston, and departed Logan Airport at 7:17 p.m. for New Bedford, where the three planned to have dinner with a business associate. The crash was about 7:44 p.m., John Karoly said.
The death of Peter Karoly has resulted in one of the more notable "will contests" in Pennsylvania.

It began with the filing of a "
caveat" with the Register of Wills of Northampton County, PA.

In an article entitled
"Family clash ties up Karoly estate", by Joe McDonald published February 22, 2007, the The Morning Call reported that a family dispute over Peter Karoly's last will had tied up the administration of the Estate of Peter J. Karoly.
Through an Easton law firm, two of Karoly's three sisters filed an objection Monday in Northampton County Court, but what they're contesting could not be determined.

The document, known as a caveat, is not public, said Register of Wills Dorothy Cole. Nor are the wills of Karoly and his wife, dentist Lauren B. Angstadt, she said.

''We have two wills for each estate,'' Cole said. ''They have been presented to our office, but they have not been put on record.''

On Wednesday, The Morning Call filed a request for all of the wills and court filings under the Pennsylvania open records law. * * *

That article further reported court involvement in another aspect of the administration of assets in Peter Karoly's Estate:
Karoly's law practice in Allentown, Peter J. Karoly & Associates, has been the subject of two recent court proceedings in Easton. That's because the Karolys lived in the Northampton County portion of Bethlehem.

On Feb. 23, county Senior Judge James C. Hogan expressed confusion about what constituted the practice and referred to a will. The practice ''may encompass a number of things apparently undefined in the will and undefined in general,'' he said, according to a transcript.

Then on March 15, Karoly's brother and at least a half-dozen other lawyers attended a proceeding before Hogan on who would run Peter Karoly's firm.
According to a later article entitled "Half brother calls 2006 Karoly will a fraud", published March 22, 2007, in The Morning Call, there were two last wills offered for probate to the Northampton County Register of Wills.
FIRST WILL: Written in 1985, it evenly divides the estate of Peter Karoly and his wife, Lauren Angstadt, among members of both families. Karoly's law firm is liquidated, with the proceeds going to the estate for distribution.
SECOND WILL: Written in 2006, it assigns Peter Karoly's law firm and several real estate holdings to brother John Karoly. The remainder of the estate is divided among nieces and nephews.
Source: Attorney involved in settlement of the estate of Peter Karoly and Lauren Angstadt.
That article noted the difference in the dispositions.
An attorney involved in the dispute, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the 2006 will leaves Peter Karoly's law practice and real estate holdings to John Karoly.

A 1985 will, the attorney said, liquidates the Allentown law practice and evenly splits the residual estate between the surviving family members of Peter Karoly and Lauren Angstadt.
That article also reported another development: On March 17, 2007, a half-brother of the decedent had made a report to the Bethlehem police suggesting criminal behavior in the execution of a last will.
A new will that leaves a sizable portion of Peter J. Karoly's estate to brother John P. Karoly Jr. is fraudulent, a half brother of the lawyers said in a complaint filed with Bethlehem police.

But Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli, who reviewed the complaint, said Wednesday it doesn't warrant a criminal investigation, leaving the matter up to a probate judge to sort out.

Michael J. Karoly, 21, a college student who lives in Sommerville, S.C., alleged numerous ''discrepancies'' in the new will, Morganelli said, including a forgery of Peter Karoly's signature.

''Based on information supplied by the Bethlehem police, I cannot find any basis to open a criminal investigation,'' Morganelli said. ''You can't just start a criminal investigation because someone believes a will is improper.''

Bethlehem Deputy Police Commissioner Stuart Bedics said there was no evidence of a crime. ''It appears to be a civil matter,'' he said.
These newspaper articles have spawned nearly a hundred public comments made online. You can read them here (39 comments as of 04/09/07) and here (58 comments as of 04/09/07), both as reposted by Topix.Net in its forums.

Some comments are poignant, some irritating, and some downright disgusting. Here's a sampling containing generalized observations:

  • "On Wednesday, The Morning Call filed a request for all of the wills and court filings under the Pennsylvania open records law." -- That's nice. Not even our personal and PRIVATE wills are immune from the local MCall tabloid.
  • It never ceases to amaze me. Someone dies that has the slightest amount of money and family members come out of the woodwork to fight over it.
  • One thing's for sure. Some lawyers are going to make a lot of money from this....and I'm not talking about the ones related to the deceased.
  • [T]he delays and extensions continue to drag this case out. Will it ever be heard?
  • I just wish a lot of people would UPDATE their wills and put me in them.
  • I say get rid of these "paper" Wills and start videotaping every Will from now on! That way there are no discrepancy! It will be done "live" and in color, and you state "who" gets what!
  • Give you stuff away when you're alive and then people will thank you for it.
Already the Peter Karoly Estate proceedings have confirmed what every high-profile will contest reinforces: Document your estate planning well with a qualified attorney to avoid unpredictability, expense, & publicity.

Update: 05/22/07:

For significant & surprising developments in this case, see PA EE&F Law Blog posting Trusts & Estates ... and the FBI: Pt. I (05/21/07).

Update: 09/26/08:

In the Karoly case, on September 25, 2008, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania announced issuance of federal criminal indictments against three defendants. See: PA EE&F Law Blog posting Attorney in PA Indicted for Will Fraud (09/26/08).

Update: 04/07/13:

The Orphans' Court Division of the Court of Common Pleas of Northampton County issued a ruling that the contestants to the wills did not meet the required burden of proof to overturn the questioned wills. No federal charges were pursued by the Justice Department on such matters. See: PA EE&F Law Blog posting Karoly Estates Will Forgery Case Ruling (04/07/13).