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Important Legal Precedent Established In New Jersey

New jerseyThe New Jersey Supreme Court has ‘firmly established in our case law’ that a will may be set aside based upon a demonstration that it was procured through undue influence. This is a big deal!

A New Jersey husband and wife, Frank Picciolo and Angelina Picciolo, appealed a 2013 probate judgment ordering them to disgorge all funds Angelina received from an annuity transfer that Frank completed while acting as attorney-in-fact for the late William C. Mallas, their next-door neighbor.

The Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division recently decided this in the case captioned “In re Estate of Mallas.” Apparently, before his death, Mallas executed a power of attorney (POA) naming Frank as attorney-in-fact, a new will naming Angelina as a beneficiary and later, a codicil appointing Frank as executor.

Frank used the POA to transfer funds contained in a long-standing Bristol Myers Squibb IRA into two annuities, with the estate as beneficiary. Sometime later, Frank used his POA to transfer the annuities into one annuity with another company and designated Angelina as sole beneficiary.

The sales agent for the annuity transaction testified that Frank directed him to make Angelina, instead of himself, the primary beneficiary, because Frank had an IRS lien against him. The sales agent also testified that he met with Frank and Angelina on several occasions, but he never met with Mallas. When the agent requested to meet Mallas, Frank told the agent it "wouldn't be feasible to go meet him."

At his deposition, Frank testified that the annuity sales agent met with Mallas in his home. At trial, Frank changed his testimony and said he confused the sales agent with a bank employee who handled the elderly man’s accounts. At trial, Angelina admitted she "had very little contact with Mr. Mallas," and "never set foot in his house."

After Mallas died in 2010, Frank filed to probate the will and codicil. Two of Mallas’s nieces challenged the decedent's will, codicil, POA and the annuity transaction. The Chancery Division found that Mallas had the required capacity to execute each document and the benefit of independent counsel. The court upheld the POA, will, and codicil, but found that Frank "failed to prove . . . that no undue influence was exerted" upon Mallas regarding the purchase of an annuity, which designated Angelina as sole beneficiary. As a result, the court ordered Angelina to disgorge all related benefits and ordered the beneficiary changed to "the Estate of William Mallas."

The court also concluded that Frank "failed to properly account" for his actions using the POA. The court also removed him as executor because, "[a]s a result of this [c]ourt's decision, the Estate of William Mallas has substantial claims against him."

On appeal, in a per curiam opinion, Judges Reisner, Hoffman, and Mayer of the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division wrote that the concept of undue influence connotes "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 . . . ." This is generally accomplished "by means of a will or inter vivos transfer in lieu thereof."

The challenger of a will typically maintains the burden of proof in showing undue influence, but the Court explained that the burden shifts when a beneficiary "stood in a confidential relationship to the testator and if there are additional 'suspicious' circumstances" present. A confidential relationship exists when "the testator, 'by reason of . . . weakness or dependence,' reposes trust in the particular beneficiary, or if the parties occupied a 'relation[ship] in which reliance [was] naturally inspired or in fact exist[ed].'"

The Appellate Division judges said that similar principles apply for setting aside inter vivos gifts and property transfers on the grounds of undue influence. To establish a presumption of undue influence and shift the burden of proof, a challenger must show either that "the donee dominated the will of the donor or . . . a confidential relationship exist[ed] between [the] donor and donee.”  However, here there’s no requirement that the challengers show suspicious circumstances to set them aside.

To rebut the presumption after the burden switches, the beneficiary must prove "not only that 'no deception was practiced therein, no undue influence used, and that all was fair, open and voluntary, but that it was well understood.'"

In this case, the Appellate Division found that the trial judge reasonably determined that a confidential relationship existed between Mallas and Frank and that as to the suspicious circumstances surrounding the execution of each of the challenged documents in the case, the judge concluded that Frank met his burden of proving there was no undue influence exerted by him in connection with the estate planning documents and beneficiary designations.

 However, with the annuity, the trial judge said that Frank and Angelina failed to carry their burden of proving the absence of undue influence. The appellate court said there was sufficient evidence in the record of the confidential relationship between Mallas and Frank and the highly suspicious circumstances surrounding the annuity transaction.  However, the record contained no credible evidence to rebut the presumption of undue influence, they said.

The Appellate Division found that the trial judge crafted an equitable remedy that accounted for the fact there was no credible evidence Mallas authorized the annuity transaction or intended to use that transaction to nullify the estate plan he established, with the benefit of counsel, in his will and codicil.

Reference: Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division (March 6, 2018) “In re Estate of Mallas”

 

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