I’m sure you, like me, are eagerly anticipating the resolution of the case in New Britain Connecticut, in which one elderly sister is suing the other for a share of a 2005 Powerball jackpot of a half million dollars. The result, however, will be determined by technical legal issues, such as whether thee was there a valid contract between the sisters to split all gambling winnings, as the suing sis insists. There has already been one interesting wrinkle: gambling contracts are typically unenforceable, and so was this one until it applied to Powerball, which is state lottery and therefore, unlike other gambling in Connecticut, legal…just one more little bonus from of state governments taking over the numbers racket.
Yet the more important question, for those of us other than the sisters, Rose Bakaysa and her younger sister Theresa Sokaitis, is why some application of ethical values didn’t stop the lawsuit from getting to court. The situation is this: Rose and Theresa were always close, and in their retirement, the two began gambling regularly, taking trips to casinos and playing the lottery. They made a deal, years ago (Rose is 87 and Theresa is 84) that if either of them won anything, they would split it 50-50.
In 2004, right before Rose hit the jackpot, the sisters had an argument over–what else?—some money, and stopped speaking to each other. Rose tore up the notorized contract, but Theresa kept it safe, just in case. This is why they are in court.
In the trial, Sokaitis admitted that Rose often helped her pay rent while she was raising her six children, helped her get back her car when it was repossessed and even paid for one of her daughters’ Catholic school tuition. The 2004 fight came about when the older sister asked for repayment of a small loan and was refused by Theresa. The demonstration of ingratitude after so much generosity—the original contract had come about after Rose won $165,000 at poker while Theresa was losing at the slot machines, and volunteered to split the winnings—-caused Rose to cut her sister off, she thought for good. Even then, Rose continued to send gifts and money to Theresa’s daughter.
Both women are allowing money to cloud their judgment. Both are in the eighties, and Rose Bakaysa is financially secure whether she has $250,000 or a half-million. Isn’t the relationship with her sister more important now? Shouldn’t her instincts be toward kindness, forgiveness, empathy and love rather than anger and revenge? As for Theresa, who probably does have a valid contract, wouldn’t she achieve most of her objectives by just acknowledging her sister’s past generosity, expressing gratitude, and trying to rebuild the relationship? Even assuming she has a legal right to the money, Theresa can hardly deny that she has been the primary beneficiary of the contract through the years, since her sister is either luckier or smarter, and she acknowledges her sister’s generosity.
From an objective standpoint, it appears that what is happening now only ensures that everybody loses, when a result in which both sisters could live out their final years happily and together is within reach. All it would take is for either sister, or both, to stop thinking about what they have a right to do, and consider what is right, applying the Golden Rule.
Their story is a sad lesson in how the law often blinds us to ethics.