Sisters feud over $500k jackpot

One contends their pact to split all winnings was never broken

Sisters Theresa Sokaitis (left) and Rose Bakaysa are in conflict over a $500,000 lottery jackpot. (Stephen Dunn/AP) Sisters Theresa Sokaitis (left) and Rose Bakaysa are in conflict over a $500,000 lottery jackpot.
By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / March 24, 2010

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Nothing, it’s been said, comes between sisters. Unless it’s half a million dollars.

For years, Theresa Sokaitis and Rose Bakaysa were the closest of siblings, whiling away long hours over card tables and slot machines, and sharing countless lottery tickets. They always played the same numbers. If one won, they both did. All pots were split 50-50.

Now, in a bitter family feud that seems ripped from a Hollywood script, the elderly widows are locked in a protracted legal battle over a $500,000 lottery jackpot, with Sokaitis saying she is rightfully owed a share of the winnings.

Yesterday, the two faced off in New Britain Superior Court, with testimony focusing on whether a notarized, decade-old compact between the sisters to share any gambling proceeds was in effect when their longtime lottery numbers came in.

In 2005, Bakaysa, an 87-year-old from Plainville, Conn., won the Powerball prize with her brother, Joseph F. Troy Sr. Sokaitis, an 84-year-old from Middletown, quickly sued for breach of contract, saying her sister had violated their agreement to split all gambling proceeds equally.

The contract, dated April 12, 1995, stated, “We are partners in any winning we shall receive. (Such as slot machines, cards, at Foxwoods Casino, and tickets, etc.).’’

The sisters, who had gambled together for years — going to Foxwoods as often as three times a week and buying a profusion of lottery tickets — drew up the deal after winning $165,000 at a casino. The printed, single-page document included their names, Social Security numbers, and signatures, and was notarized by an accountant.

But about a year before the winning lottery draw, the sisters had a fight over a loan of some $250 that one had made to the other. The fight became a bitter split. And Bakaysa’s lawyer, William Sweeney of Connecticut, contends the feuding sisters nullified their agreement to split winnings.

“The contract was rescinded,’’ Sweeney said. “She [Sokaitis] said she didn’t want to be partners anymore, and my client said that was fine.’’

The sisters did not speak again — until Sokaitis called Bakaysa after learning about the winning ticket, he said.

“They had no contact whatsoever,’’ Sweeney said.

Sokaitis testified yesterday that her sister told her she had torn up the contract and that “I wasn’t going to get a dime.’’

Complicating the situation, Sweeney said, Bakaysa had over the years often lent her sister money — for her children’s tuition and other expenses, and had become frustrated at not being repaid. But Sokaitis’s lawyer, Sam Pollack, said that neither the fight nor the rift that followed changed the contract.

“There’s no question there was an issue between them,’’ he said. “But getting angry isn’t enough. The law is very clear. There has to be a meeting of the minds.’’

Pollack said Sokaitis has six children and is pursuing the money for their sake. She holds out hope, he said, that she and her sister can reconcile after the trial. “She hopes they can have some semblance of a relationship,’’ he said.

Testimony was completed yesterday, and the judge is expected to make a ruling next month after reviewing legal briefs on both sides — a long-sought resolution of a dispute that has been traveling through the courts for years. In 2006, a lower court had dismissed Sokaitis’s lawsuit, ruling that the sisters’ agreement was unenforceable under state law.

But that decision was reversed on appeal, then upheld last August by the state Supreme Court, which concluded that the sisters’ agreement was valid. The court determined that the arrangement did not constitute a “wagering contract,’’ which is void under state law, but was simply a pledge to share any potential winnings.

“The consideration for the agreement was not the money that they won but rather their mutual promises to one another to share in any winnings they received,’’ the justices ruled.

Sokaitis’s lawyer had also argued that the state law forbidding wagering contracts did not apply to legal forms of gambling.

“Although perhaps not often stated explicitly, every legal wager is, in essence, a gambling contract,’’ the justices wrote. The decision also noted that lottery policy and state tax law recognize that lottery winnings may be shared by agreement.

Sean Higgins, a Boston lawyer who represented Sokaitis on the case until last year, said he was skeptical a contract existed until his client faxed over a copy.

Higgins said the sisters were extremely close, and that Sokaitis has been deeply saddened over their estrangement. “It’s a real sad story on every level,’’ he said.

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