Family Funds May Be Used for Trial in Boys’ Deaths


In an unusual legal quandary, Dr. Xavier Caro may see his family’s accounts drained to pay a private attorney to defend the woman suspected of killing three of his children.

That’s because the woman, Socorro “Cora” Caro, is his wife.

And despite the fact that she could face an expensive trial on multiple murder charges for allegedly shooting their three oldest sons, legal experts this week said Cora Caro is entitled to tap the couple’s mutual funds to pay for her defense.

“Community property is 50-50 in California at death or divorce,” said USC Law School professor Scott A. Altman. “If he became wealthy during their marriage, much of his wealth is her wealth.”


So far, court records show Xavier Caro has not filed for divorce. But lawyers say that is the only way he can protect his half of the family’s assets from being used to pay his wife’s legal expenses.

Even attempts to stop payments or shuffle money into other accounts would be futile, they said, because Cora Caro has a legal right to half the money earned during their 13-year marriage unless the couple signed a prenuptial agreement.

“It’s kind of a weird situation,” said Thousand Oaks family law attorney Susan Witting.

“She does have access to that money right now, including credit cards and accounts,” Witting said. “She was accused of murder--that doesn’t freeze her out to access the community funds.”

Cora Caro, 42, was arrested last week on suspicion of first-degree murder. Ventura County prosecutors plan to file charges before a scheduled Dec. 17 arraignment date.

Authorities suspect the mother fatally shot Christopher, 5, Michael, 8, and Joseph, 11, as they slept Nov. 22 in the family’s Santa Rosa Valley home. A 13-month-old son, Gabriel, was unharmed.

Caro apparently turned the gun on herself, firing a bullet into her head. Law enforcement officials said Xavier Caro, 52, found his sons dead in their beds and his wife bleeding in the master bedroom when he came home.


Cora Caro’s attorney said Monday that she remains in “very grave physical condition” at the Ventura County Medical Center, where she is being held in custody without bail.

A week after the shooting, Xavier Caro told The Times the slayings were “incomprehensible.” Caro has been a staff rheumatologist for 20 years at Northridge Hospital Medical Center. His wife, who worked for a period of time as his office manager, was described by friends as a doting stay-at-home mom.

Caro said he plans to sell the family’s 4,800-square-foot home. The Caros, who have joint ownership of the property, moved into the Mediterranean-style mansion in December 1993 after paying $672,500 for a property estimated today to be worth more than $1 million.

During the interview, Xavier Caro declined to discuss his wife. He could not be reached for comment this week about her pending criminal case.

Encino attorney Richard Plotin said Monday he had been retained to defend Cora Caro. He would not comment on the financial arrangements, except to say that Caro does not qualify for a public defender.

Attorneys and law school professors predict Caro’s case will be expensive, and they add that most defense attorneys insist on being paid upfront.


“This case is going to require, in one way or another, qualified psychiatric experts and some investigative background,” said criminal defense attorney Louis “Chuck” Samonsky. “And the fact that the case is so serious and the consequences so dire, there can be no stone left unturned.

“It is the kind of case,” Samonsky added, “where you would expect to pay a quarter-million dollars.”

How those potential fees will be paid is uncertain.

Legal experts said there are many possible scenarios: Plotin could take the case at no cost; Xavier Caro could pay his wife’s legal bills; or the physician could file for divorce and compel his spouse to cover her own costs through her share of the community property.

But he cannot, experts said, prevent her from hiring a private defense attorney.

“He cannot control her ability to make a contract,” said Loyola Law School professor Jan Costello, who teaches classes in family law and marital property. “Since 1848, married women can make contracts.”

But Costello said a divorcing spouse can shield his or her share of the community property from debts--including civil judgments or legal fees incurred in criminal cases--if the other spouse was engaged in activity deemed “not beneficial to the marriage.”

The issue came before the California Court of Appeal six years ago in a Kern County divorce case.


In that matter, a wife argued that fees paid during the marriage to an attorney to defend herself against embezzlement charges should be regarded as joint debt paid from their community property.

But the court ruled that regardless of the idea that two people marry for better or worse, there is no legal principle requiring an innocent spouse to share the debt created by the other party.

In the Caro case, Costello said, the husband could make it hard for his wife to access their assets. But ultimately the law allows her to hire a lawyer and to use her share of community property to pay for it.

“It is a serious crime,” Costello said. “She needs a legal defense and she has a right to retain counsel.”