In a case recently decided by the Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey (In the Matter of the Estate of Samia Balgar, Docket No. A-6621-04T5) the Appellate Court dealt with an issue concerning the disposition of certain joint bank accounts on the death of one of the parties to the account.
In this case, the decedent had executed a will leaving her estate equally to her five daughters, with one of the daughters, the defendant in this case, being the executor. At the same time as the will was executed, the defendant was designated as the decedent’s power of attorney. At issue were several bank accounts that were jointly held by the decedent and the defendant. The plaintiffs alleged that the defendant had coerced her mother into transferring most of her assets into these joint bank accounts.
The Trial Court determined that there was a confidential relationship between the defendant and the decedent and that the defendant did not submit sufficient proofs to rebut the presumption of undue influence that arises once a confidential relationship is found.
The Appellate Court affirmed the findings of the Trial Court that the defendant had not made her burden of proof, even in light of the fact that the plaintiffs failed to set aside the statutory presumption that a survivor takes the funds in an account on the death of the other party, as is required by the applicable statute, N.J.S.A. 17:16-5(a).
The Appellate Court noted that based upon the confidential relationship, the defendant had to prove that there was no undue influence and that the defendant’s proofs had to be based upon the standard of "clear and convincing evidence". The Court noted that to prove a case by clear and convincing evidence, the evidence offered must produce in the mind of the trier of fact a firm belief or conviction as to the truth of the allegation sought to be established"…and "must be so clear, direct, and weighty and convincing as to enable the judge or jury to come to a clear conviction, without hesitancy, of the truth of the precise facts in issue."
In matters where it is alleged that a confidential relationship existed between a decedent and a party receiving a transfer or gift, the party contesting the transfer or gift must only must only prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that a confidential relationship existed. Once that is done, the party that received the transfer or gift is charged with meeting an extremely high standard of proof. In this case, as in many others, the defendant was unable to meet this burden.