Undue Influence In New Jersey Will Contests

Undue influence in New Jersey is one of the most common grounds to challenge a will and 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.”  Gellert v. Livingston, 5 N.J. 65 (1950).

Therefore, undue influence in New Jersey will contests is:

  1. Exertion of influence over another that is undue and significant, that
  2. Overpowers the person’s free will at the time the challenged document (will, trust, power of attorney, gift, deed) was made, and
  3. Causes the person to execute the challenged document that he or she would not have made but for the undue influence.

 

The Presumption of Undue Influence In New Jersey

The burden of proving undue influence is upon the person asserting it and must be clearly established.

Undue influence in a New Jersey will contest is presumed when:

  1. A confidential relationship existed between the testator and the party who benefitted from the undue influence; and
  2. Suspicious circumstances exist.

 

If the presumption of undue influence is raised, the presumption can be rebutted by showing that:

  1. No undue influence was used; and
  2. The testator’s actions were voluntary and understood by the testator.

 

What Is a Confidential Relationship Under New Jersey Undue Influence Law?

A confidential relationship is one necessary element of raising the presumption of undue influence under New Jersey law.  A confidential relationship exists when one party (the testator) trusts and relies on the other party (the undue influencer), by reason of the testator’s weakness or dependence.  A confidential relationship does not exist where the parties deal on terms of equality.

Some examples of a confidential relationship for purposes of raising the presumption of undue influence under New Jersey law are:

  1. A caretaker and the person that he/she cares for;
  2. A child who handles a parent’s finances;
  3. A friend who helps a neighbor, and the neighbor relies on that friend for daily needs.

 

What Is a Suspicious Circumstance Under New Jersey Undue Influence Law?

A suspicious circumstance is the second element necessary to raise the presumption of undue influence in New Jersey.  The suspicious circumstance can be slight, and simply must suggest some overreaching or inequality in the relationship. Examples of suspicious circumstances include:

  1. A drastic change in the testator’s testamentary plan.
  2. Unnatural or unequal bequests.
  3. The testator using a new attorney to draft their will.
  4. Weakened mental capacity and isolation of the testator.
  5. Strained relationships in the testator’s family.

 

Is It Easy To Prove Undue Influence?

No, undue influence cases are hard cases, because courts lean towards upholding a testator’s will when possible.

Even if the undue influence seems obvious to you, it still must be proven and supported with evidence that convinces the trier of fact.

The evidence must clearly show that the beneficiary had the motive and the opportunity to exert, and did in fact exert, undue influence over the testator.  The evidence must demonstrate that the testator’s free will was compromised or destroyed.

What Are Some Examples Of Undue Influence In New Jersey Will Contests?

New Jersey case law gives some common examples where courts have found undue influence in a will contest.

Undue Influence: In The Matter of the Estate of Antoinette Zarrillo

In In The Matter of the Estate of Antoinette Zarrillo, Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division: Probate Part, Essex County, the Court considered undue influence in the execution of a will and changes to beneficiary designations.

The decedent was survived by three sons.  In her 2004 will (signed the day before decedent had heart surgery), decedent left one of her sons, Joseph, property and 45% of the residual estate.  Nicholas, another son, was left 45% of the residual estate.  The third son, Michael, was left 10%.  Decedent’s prior estate plans left the estate equally to all three sons.  Joseph and his wife moved in with the decedent several years prior the 2004 will.  The decedent’s health was in decline.  When she executed the will, the decedent also changed beneficiary designations on several accounts in favor of Joseph.

Nicholas and Michael contested the will and the inter vivos transfers on undue influence grounds. Despite the decedent being relatively independent, the Court found that decedent’s health began to decline before the execution of the 2004 will, Joseph had a confidential relationship with the Decedent, and suspicious circumstances existed in light of the significant change in the disposition under the 2004 will and the prior will.  The presumption of undue influence was not overcome by Joseph, and the will was set aside as the product of undue influence.

No Undue Influence: In the Matter of the Probate of the Alleged Will of Joan Pennella

In In the Matter of the Probate of the Alleged Will of Joan Pennella, Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, a woman died with 7 children.  In 1996, decedent made a will leaving her estate equally to her children.  Joan changed her will in 2010 to leave two of her children, Sam and Carol, small bequests.  Sam had borrowed a substantial amount of money from Joan and refused to pay it back, and Carol had refused to return an expensive necklace she had borrowed, and mistreated Joan.

Carl, one of Joan’s children, sought to probate Joan’s 2010 will.  Sam and Carol filed a caveat claiming that Joan lacked mental capacity, and that the will was the product of undue influence.  The Court found that Carl did not have a confidential relationship with the decedent, and that there were no suspicious circumstances.  Decedent’s probate attorneys and her daughter testified as to Joan’s strong will and clear intention to reduce Sam and Carol’s shares in the 2010 will.

Undue influence cases under New Jersey law are dependent on the facts of each situation.  If you think you might have an undue influence case, contact a New Jersey probate lawyer for help.

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