Law Lessons from IN THE MATTER OF THE PROBATE OF THE ALLEGED WILL OF JOAN PENNELLA, App. Div., A-1958-11T4, October 17, 2012:
In any attack upon the validity of a will, it is generally presumed that “the testator was of sound mind and competent when [she] executed the will.” Gellert v. Livingston, 5 N.J. 65, 71 (1950). However, “[i]f a will is tainted by undue influence, it may be overturned.” Haynes v. First Nat’l Bank of N.J., 87 N.J. 163, 176 (1981).
“Undue influence” has been defined as “mental, moral or physical” exertion which has destroyed the “free agency of a testator” by preventing the testator “from following the dictates of his own mind and will and accepting instead the domination and influence of another.” Ibid. (quoting In re Neuman, 133 N.J. Eq. 532, 534 (E. & A. 1943)).
[T]he burden of proving undue influence lies upon the contestant unless the will benefits one who stood in a confidential relationship to the testatrix and there are additional circumstances of a suspicious character present which require explanation. In such case the law raises a presumption of undue influence and the burden of proof is shifted to the proponent.
[In re Rittenhouse’s Will, 19 N.J. 376, 378-79 (1955).]
The first element necessary to raise a presumption of “undue influence” is the existence of a “confidential relationship” between the testator and a beneficiary. Haynes, supra, 87 N.J. at 176. A confidential relationship exists where,
the relations between the . . . parties appear to be of such a character as to render it certain that they do not deal on terms of equality, but that either on the one side from superior knowledge of the matter derived from a fiduciary relation, or from over-mastering influence; or on the other from weakness, dependence or trust justifiably reposed, unfair advantage is rendered probable.
[Pascale, supra, 113 N.J. at 34.]
Although parent-child relationships are “among the most natural of confidential relationships,” ibid., “the mere existence of family ties does not create . . . a confidential relationship.” Vezzetti v. Shields, 22 N.J. Super. 397, 405 (App. Div. 1952).
The factors to be considered in determining whether a confidential relationship is present, . . . include whether trust and confidence between the parties actually exist, whether they are dealing on terms of equality, whether one side has superior knowledge of the details and effect of a proposed transaction based on a fiduciary relationship, whether one side has exerted over-mastering influence over the other or whether one side is weak or dependent.
[Estate of Ostlund v. Ostlund, 391 N.J. Super. 390, 402 (App. Div. 2007).]
The second element necessary to create a presumption of “undue influence” is the presence of “suspicious circumstances.” Haynes, supra, 87 N.J. at 176. While the contestant must prove suspicious circumstances, “[s]uch circumstances need be no more than ‘slight.'” Ibid.
“The findings of the trial court on the issues of testamentary capacity and undue influence, though not controlling, are entitled to great weight since the trial court had the opportunity of seeing and hearing the witnesses and forming an opinion as to the credibility of their testimony.” Gellert, supra, 5 N.J. at 78. “Such factual findings should not be disturbed unless they are so manifestly unsupported or inconsistent with the competent, reasonably credible evidence so as to offend the interests of justice.” In re Will of Liebl, 260 N.J. Super. 519, 524 (App. Div. 1992), certif. denied, 133 N.J. 432 (1993).
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