By Fredrick P. Niemann, Esq. of Hanlon Niemann, a Freehold, NJ Probate Estate Litigation Attorney

A New Jersey appeals court awarded legal fees of $397,000 for work performed by a law firm representing the estate of a man found to have been manipulated into modifying his will by his then wife.

The fees were awarded because the pro se challenger—the deceased man’s wife from a second marriage—“contributed to, and greatly increased, the time required litigating the matter,” the court said.

In this case, the decedent, after the death of his first wife, married and later executed wills leaving certain assets to her and certain property to his adult children.

The decedent was hospitalized for related kidney cancer and afterwards was cared for fully by his wife. During that time, two codicils to his Last Will were executed, bequeathing all his personal property to his second wife.

Her daughter brought the frail and weakened stepfather to a branch of a local bank where a worker notarized a new deed—granting the new wife rights in their Cherry Hill property—while witnesses to the document watched from inside the bank.

She allegedly forbade his children and relatives from visiting and controlled his medication.

On Oct. 2, 2007, decedent died at the age of 72. His new wife then recorded the new deed, drew money from his accounts, and probated the codicils and retained counsel to represent the estate.

The attorney hired to do the probate became suspicious of the codicils and directed the executrix not to submit either one for probate.

The Superior Court Judge assigned to try the case found there had been a “confidential relationship” between the husband and wife, who was in a weakened state when the documents were executed. He ruled that the surviving spouse lacked credibility, and fraudulently executed the documents.

He directed her to reimburse about $59,000 to the estate and valued the decedent’s interest in the Cherry Hill property, at $330,000, which is returned to the estate.

The judge also awarded the estate $377,000 in legal fees and $20,000 in costs as part of the damages. He said the fees were justified because the new spouse made “sophisticated attempts to defraud the estate” and “waged a scorched earth campaign” in court.

The Appellate Division upheld the trial court and relied partly on In re Niles Trust, 176 N.J. 282 (2003), where the state Supreme Court held that fees are awardable where a trustee or executor commits undue influence or modifies estate documents.

Though not a fiduciary, “she contributed to the erosion of the estate, and there is no just reason why she, like a corrupt fiduciary, should not make the estate whole,” the court said.

The trial judge “could’ve been more punishing in that he declined to award punitive damages,” which he could have but his ruling is “a good warning to people who would conduct themselves this way.”

To discuss your NJ probate litigation matter, please contact Fredrick P. Niemann, Esq. toll-free at (855) 376-5291 or email him at fniemann@hnlawfirm.com. Please ask us about our video conferencing consultations if you are unable to come to our office.