Will A Court Award Counsel Fees to a Plaintiff That Was Unable to Prove Lack of Testamentary Capacity or Undue Influence?

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In a recent case decided by the Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey on June 17, 2011 (In The Matter of the Estate of Blanche T. Riordan, Deceased, Docket  No. A-4123-09T4; Docket No. A-4464-09T4; Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division), the Trial Court concluded that the decedent had testamentary capacity when she executed her will and that the will was not the product of undue influence. 
 

The Plaintiffs argued that the Trial Court's finding that the decedent possessed the requisite testamentary capacity to execute a will was not supported by sufficient, credible evidence and rather, "was so far wide of the mark and contrary to competent evidence in the record as to amount to a manifest denial of justice.” The Appellate Division found the findings of the Trial Court on the issues of testamentary capacity and undue influence, though not controlling, were entitled to great weight since the Trial Court had the opportunity of seeing and hearing the witnesses and forming an opinion as to the credibility of their testimony reasonably credible evidence as to offend the interests of justice.
 

As a general principle, New Jersey law requires only a very low degree of mental capacity to execute a will. The gauge of testamentary capacity has been stated to be whether the testator can comprehend the property he/she is about to dispose of; the natural objects of his/her bounty; the meaning of the business in which he/she is engaged; the relation of each of these factors to the others, and the distribution that is made by the will. Testamentary capacity is tested at the time of execution of the will.
 

In any attack upon the validity of a will, there is a legal presumption that the testator was of sound mind and competent when he executed the will. This presumption can only be overcome by clear and convincing evidence. The burden of establishing lack of
testamentary capacity falls upon the party who contests the will being offered for probate.
 

Evaluating the evidence in the aggregate, the Trial Court in this case concluded that Plaintiffs did not satisfy their heavy burden of proving, by clear and convincing evidence, that the decedent lacked testamentary capacity when she executed her will.  The Appellate Division was satisfied that there was sufficient competent and reasonably credible evidence in the record to support the Trial Court's findings.
 

Plaintiffs also contended that the Trial Court's factual findings and legal conclusions with respect to the issue of undue influence were unsupported by the credible evidence adduced at trial and warranted reversal.
 

What constitutes undue influence sufficient to invalidate a will is a question of law.  But whether a will was procured by undue influence is a question of fact for the court, as is the truth or credibility of evidence introduced on such issue and the weight to be given to the evidence.   A will which on its face appears to be validly executed, can be overturned if it is tainted by "undue influence."
 

Undue influence has been defined as a mental, moral, or physical exertion of a kind and quality that destroys the free will of the testator by preventing that person from following the dictates of his or her own mind as it relates to the disposition of assets. 
 

Two elements are required to raise a presumption of undue influence. First, there must be a "confidential relationship" between the testator and the beneficiary. Second, the presence of "additional 'suspicious' circumstances" in combination with such a confidential relationship must exist.  Such circumstances need only be slight.
 

Under normal circumstances, once a presumption of undue influence has been established and the burden of proof is shifted to the proponent of the will, the presumption may be overcome by a preponderance of the evidence.  If, however, the presumption arises from a professional conflict of interest on the part of an attorney, coupled with confidential relationships between a testator and the beneficiary as well as the attorney, the presumption must instead be rebutted by clear and convincing evidence.
 

Notwithstanding the confidential relationship that existed, the Trial Court found no evidence that anyone overpowered the will of the decedent.  The court concluded the defendants had met their burden to overcome the presumption of undue influence by a preponderance of the credible evidence.  The Appellate Court upheld these conclusions as to the claims of undue influence as well as the claims of lack of testamentary intent.
 

Even though the Plaintiff was not successful in proving lack of mental capacity or undue influence, the Trial Court still awarded the payment of counsel fees from the estate.   The Plaintiffs appealed the Trial Court's failure to award the full amount of their counsel fees and the Defendants appealed the award of any counsel fees to Plaintiffs. The Appellate Court rejected both challenges.
 

The decision to award attorneys' fees falls within the discretion of the Trial Judge and, accordingly, is reviewed under an abuse of discretion standard as long as the Trial Judge did not act under a misconception of the applicable law.
 

New Jersey has a strong public policy against the shifting of attorneys fees and costs.  Generally, everyone pays their own counsel fees.  This based upon what is known as the American Rule.  However, there is an exception to this American Rule in certain cases.  One of those exceptions is for payment of counsel fees from an estate in a will contest where probate is granted and it appears that there was reasonable cause for contesting the validity of the will.  Except in a weak or meretricious case, courts will normally allow counsel fees to both proponent and contestant in a will dispute.
 

The Appellate Court upheld the finding of the Trial Court that there was a reasonable basis for the Plaintiffs position even though that basis was not sufficient to set aside the will. Simply put, the Trial Court determined the challenge to the will was reasonable and that the award of some, although not all of the counsel fees, was appropriate.

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