In the Matter of the Estate of BELVA PLAIN, Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Probate Part, Essex County, Docket No. ESX-CP-0048-2011, decided on July 22, 2011, the question was raised as to whether a child of a decedent was precluded from challenging the Last Will and Testament of his mother by his execution of a settlement agreement eighteen years before her death. In that settlement agreement, the son covenanted not to challenge his mother’s documents after her death.
The son filed a complaint seeking to invalidate his mother’s will on the basis that she lacked the testamentary capacity to make the will or that the will was the result of undue influence. The family history of the parties was one of considerable animosity and extensive litigation. Prior to the mother’s death, she found it necessary to seek multiple restraining orders against her son. At one point, the restraints barred her son from entering the municipality where his mother lived. In 1993, approximately eighteen years before the mother died, the son and mother executed a settlement agreement which globally resolved more than a dozen pending litigations and resulted in the vacation of all outstanding restraining orders. In the Agreement, the son agreed not to attempt to set aside or contest the mother’s will, or make any claim against the mother’s estate. The mother agreed to make annual payments to the son for his support which would continue for the rest of the son’s life. The mother also agreed to fund the son’s psychiatric care up to a set maximum amount per year. The mother agreed to create an inter vivos trust that would be funded upon her death in order to continue to fulfill the obligation to support the son under the Agreement. The son, as of the time of trial, had received in excess of five hundred thousand dollars under the terms of the Agreement. Further, since 1990 the mother had executed ten different wills, all purporting to disinherit the son; the last eight wills executed after the parties’ 1993 Agreement, including the March 21, 2007 Will, all referred to the mother’s obligations to support her son as set forth in the Agreement.
The agreement also required the mother to make a total of four future visits with her son under the supervision of the son’s psychiatrist; two pre-scheduled telephone calls to the son per year at times and intervals to be determined by the mother; to write the son two letters annually, whose timeliness, content and duration shall be totally within the discretion of the mother. Other than the contact detailed above, the Agreement forbade the son from contacting, attempting to contact or communicate with the mother or any other member of the family without the prior written consent of the specific family member.
To avoid enforcement of the very clear language in the 1993 Settlement Agreement prohibiting Will challenges of precisely the sort initiated by the son in this case, the son first argued that the Settlement Agreement was both procedurally and substantively unconscionable. The Court noted that our legislature has addressed the issue of unconscionability as it pertains to contracts. N.J.S.A. § 12A:2-302 states, "(1) If the court as a matter of law finds the contract or any clause of the contract to have been unconscionable at the time it was made the court may refuse to enforce the contract, or it may enforce the remainder of the contract without the unconscionable clause, or it may so limit the application of any unconscionable clause as to avoid any unconscionable result." The common law doctrine of unconscionability has proven difficult to define and has been rarely invoked undoubtedly because, other than in exceptional cases, it has been largely viewed as grossly interfering with the freedom to contract. There are very few cases from New Jersey courts examining and defining unconscionability.
The son’ next claim was that he was at an economic disadvantage when dealing with his mother and that he was required to "take whatever was thrown his way." It was an undisputed fact that the son was represented by counsel at the time of the 1993 Settlement Agreement and that the parties engaged in multiple negotiations over a period of time exceeding one year. It was also undisputed that there was a lengthy history of litigation between the parties. In light of the rancorous history of litigation and personal conflict, and also in light of the substantial consideration provided to the son over the years, the Court found nothing troubling about the agreement, either procedurally or substantively, as a matter of law.
Lastly, the son argued that he was excused from performance of the contract, because the his mother materially breached the agreement by failing to write him two letters per year as was required by the Settlement Agreement. The Court noted that in contract law, a ‘material’ breach of contract is a failure to perform the contract that strikes so deeply at the heart of the contract that it renders the agreement irreparably broken and defeats the purpose of making the contract in the first place. If there is a material breach the other party can simply end the agreement and go to court to try to collect damages caused by the breach. The Court determined that due to the fact that the mother had total discretion to determine the timing, content, and duration of these letters, and, although there were questions as to just how therapeutic these letters could reasonably be expected to be, or how material they were to the overall agreement, the son’s continuing to accept the other benefits of the Agreement in light of this alleged breach led to the conclusion that the son waived his right to use the breach as a defense to nonperformance.
The Court also found that the son’s claims were also barred by the equitable doctrine of laches in view of his failure to timely act. While the son claimed that his mother violated the Agreement shortly after it was executed by failing to send him two letters per year, he did not act on this knowledge, choosing instead to sit on his rights until he brought a will contest prohibited by the express terms of the Agreement. The Court found that a period of close to eighteen years without any assertion of his rights under the Agreement constitutes inexcusable delay and that the son was barred by laches.
Similarly, the doctrine of equitable estoppel barred the son’s challenge to the contract. Equitable estoppel prevents one from rectifying his own grossly negligent mistake at the expense of another who has, without negligence, been misled. The Court found that the son conducted himself in such a way as to lead all parties to believe the contract was still in force and to allow the son to assert the existence of a material breach negating his own obligations under the contract after all of these years would amount to fraud by conduct and would violate the Court’s equitable responsibilities.
The contract signed between the son and mother was deemed to be enforceable and the son was barred from making any claims concerning his mother’s will.