The Doctrine of Laches

In a recent decision from the Chancery Division in Essex County, New Jersey, Buie v. Estate of Buie, an unreported decision, Docket No. ESX-C-192-10, the Court put the Doctrine of Laches to use in dismissing the claims of a surviving spouse.

Here, the decedent died in January 1996. He had six children, only one of whom was the child of his wife at the time of his death. The decedent died testate, leaving his property in Newark to be divided among his six children equally. One week after his death, the plaintiff, his wife, who received non-probate assets of $95,000, left the house in question and returned to South Carolina with co-plaintiff, her son with the decedent.

Then, in 2010 (14 years later), plaintiff/surviving spouse filed a complaint demanding her intestate share under N.J.S.A. 3B:5-3 as an omitted spouse under N.J.S.A. 3B:5-15 or an elective share of her husband’s estate pursuant to N.J.S.A. 3B:8-1. Plaintiff claimed that she first learned about the Will in 2009 after hiring counsel; defendants claim the action is barred by the Doctrine of Laches.

The Doctrine of Laches arises from the neglect for an unreasonable and unexplained length of time to do what in law should have been done. The doctrine bars relief when the delaying party had ample opportunity to bring a claim, and the party invoking the doctrine was acting in good faith in believing that the delaying party had given up on its claim. The period of time during which Laches can be raised as an equitable defense is flexible, not fixed. When determining whether the Doctrine of Laches should be invoked, the court considers three factors: the length of the delay, the reasons for the delay, and how the circumstances of the parties have changed over the course of the delay.

In this case, the plaintiff’s claim as an omitted spouse was barred by the Doctrine of Laches since there was a substantial delay in bringing the action, the plaintiff was a cause of the delay, and defendants had been prejudices as a result of that delay. Furthermore, her claim for an elective share was also barred by the terms of the statute. Such claims must be made within six months after the appointment of a personal representative. Rocaltrol

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