Timeliness of Filing a Challenge to the Probate of a Will and the Imposition of Sanctions for Frivolous Filings

Recently, in the Matter of the Estate of Lichtsztral v. Pizem, Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, Docket Nos. A-3162-10T3 and A-4615-10T3, the Court examined the issues of the timeliness of filing challenges to the probate of a Will and the imposition of sanctions for frivolous filings.

In 1996, the decedent executed a Last Will and Testament.  Pursuant to the Will, a trust was to be established for the decedent’s wife which would allow for the use of the principal of the trust for his wife’s benefit.  Then, upon his wife’s death, the remainder of the trust was to be paid to the decedent’s daughter.

Prior to his death, the decedent was arrested for domestic violence, after which he went to live with his daughter.  Allegedly, the decedent’s daughter attempted to coerce the decedent into disinheriting his wife.  The decedent then went to live with a friend.  In 2003, while living with the friend, the decedent went to an attorney to draw up a new Will to give his estate to the friend.    The attorney opined that he found the decedent to possess testamentary capacity.  Contemporaneously, a doctor opined he was suffering from dementia.  Subsequently, the decedent moved into an Assisted Living facility.  The decedent’s wife began divorce proceedings.  He died in 2004.

The decedent’s 2003 Will was probated in New Jersey.  Some months later, the earlier Will was admitted to probate in New York.  In 2009, the decedent’s daughter filed an action in New Jersey alleging lack of capacity with regard to the 2003 Will.  She also sued the law firm for not making reasonable inquiry into the decedent’s state of mind.  She also alleged that the Will should not have been admitted to probate in New Jersey because the decedent was a resident of New York.

Rule 4:85-1 governs the time within which a person may challenge an order of the Surrogate’s Court to admit a Will to probate.  The time limit is four (4) months for in-State residents and six (6) months for out-of-State residents.  If relief is sought under Rule 4:50-1, a Complaint must be filed within a reasonable time under the circumstances.  Although the decedent’s daughter was not personally served with a copy of the probated Will, she had constructive notice of the proceedings by May of 2005.  However, she did not file the action in New Jersey until four (4) years after she had constructive notice of the proceedings.  The Appellate Division upheld the trial court’s determination that the filing was out of time.

The daughter also alleged that New Jersey lacked jurisdiction over the matter because the decedent was a resident of New York at the time of his death.  In Rogan Equities, Inc. v. Santini, 289 N.J.Super. 95, 114 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 145 N.J. 375 (1996), the Appellate Division held that in some circumstances a motion to vacate a void judgment can properly be denied as untimely.

The decision then turned to the issue of whether the daughter’s pleadings were frivolous under Rule 1:4-8.  The rule allows for a court to impose sanctions where an attorney or pro se party files a paper that does not conform to the Rule and fails to withdraw the paper after service of a demand for its withdrawal.  An assertion is considered to be “frivolous” when “‘no rational argument can be advanced in its support, or it is not supported by any credible evidence, or it is completely untenable.'”  United Hearts, L.L.C. v. Zahabian, 407 N.J.Super. 379, 389 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 200 N.J. 367 (2009).  A court will not award counsel fees when an attorney has a reasonable and good faith belief in the merits of the cause of action.  Id. at 389.  Sanctions are appropriate when a pleading is of a frivolous or harassing nature.  Id. at 390.

The Appellate Division will apply an abuse of discretion standard when reviewing a trial court’s decision regarding frivolous litigation sanctions.  Thus, a decision will be considered a mistaken exercise of discretion if it is was not premised upon all relevant factors, was based upon irrelevant or inappropriate factors, or amounts to a clear error of judgment.  Here, the Court concluded that the record supported the trial court’s determination that the award of sanctions pursuant to Rule 1:4-8 was not warranted. Lexapro

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