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Matter of Estate of Belinda Watson

Decided: November 15, 1960.


On motion for review of surrogate's orders granting letters of administration.

Rosen, J.c.c.


The Surrogate of Hudson County, on July 14, 1960, appointed William E. Decker, a member of the New Jersey Bar, as administrator c.t.a. of the will of Belinda Watson. On August 26, 1960 he appointed Joseph Keane, a member of the New Jersey Bar, as general administrator of the estate of the said Belinda Watson.

Evelyn A. Mace, niece of Belinda Watson, deceased, and William E. Decker, brought this action to vacate and set aside the appointment of Joseph Keane as general administrator of decedent's estate. Joseph Keane seeks to vacate the appointment of William E. Decker as administrator c.t.a.

On July 2, 1960 the decedent, Belinda Watson, executed her last will and testament, wherein she gave specific instructions concerning her debts, funeral arrangements, and funeral expenses. Decedent died on July 4, 1960. She devised her home and its entire contents in Jersey City

to her neighbors, Frank J. Doyle and Elizabeth R. Doyle, his wife. The will does not dispose of her residuary estate, nor did she appoint an executor in the said will. The probate of the will is not in dispute. However, examination of the original will discloses that it was typed as the will of Linda Watson. It appears that the letters "Be" were inserted in ink in front of the name "Linda" wherever the name appeared on the face of the will. The writing represented to be the signature of Belinda Watson discloses an obviously weak signature, which is hardly legible. This writing appears four times on the face of the will.

The decedent was 86 years of age and was confined to a nursing home when the will was executed. Mr. Doyle, an insurance underwriter, and his wife were neighbors of decedent. They paid a great deal of attention to her and were one of her sources of satisfaction and happiness. The decedent had a great deal of faith in Mr. Doyle during her lifetime, and he handled her bank accounts, prepared checks for her signature, made arrangements to have her income tax returns filed, and, generally, was a confidant in whom decedent placed a great deal of trust. Decedent's husband died about 15 years prior to her death, and her relatives did not visit her after his death. Sometime in June 1960 Mr. Doyle spoke with Mrs. Watson at the nursing home. She requested that he bury her and take care of the bills. She wanted Mr. and Mrs. Doyle to have the house. Mr. Doyle advised her he could not abide by any of her decisions without "getting it down on paper," and he suggested the services of an attorney be obtained. Apparently, in this discussion with decedent, she remembered the name of Mr. McMaster.

Mr. Doyle communicated with Mr. McMaster's office and was informed that Mr. McMaster was on vacation. He was referred to Mr. Decker. Mr. Decker saw decedent on June 13, 1960. Decedent informed Mr. Decker that she wanted to make a will, provide for funeral arrangements, and designate an undertaker to conduct her funeral. She

also advised Mr. Decker that her next-door neighbors, the Doyles, had done many things for her, and she wanted to leave them her house on Fairmount Avenue, Jersey City, together with its contents. Mr. Decker asked her what disposition she wanted to make of the rest of her property, and she replied she wanted to think it over. Mr. Decker had no idea of the value of her estate, but assumed she was "paying a good weekly charge" in the nursing home and that she did have other property. Further inquiry by Mr. Decker revealed that she had relatives but did not have much to do with them, and had no desire to leave any money to any charitable or religious institutions. At this conference she asked for Mr. Doyle, and was told Mr. Doyle did not understand he was to attend. Decedent then asked when Mr. McMaster would return, and when informed about three weeks or longer, she said she wanted to see Mr. Doyle. Decedent, in response to Mr. Decker's inquiry, stated "I don't want any executor right now." She was then advised the surrogate would appoint an administrator if she did not appoint an executor in her will. She responded by saying "I want to talk to Mr. Doyle." This conference, which lasted 1 to 1 1/2 hours was the only time Mr. Decker spoke to or saw decedent.

Mr. Doyle visited decedent and communicated with Mr. Decker. Mr. Decker prepared the will and gave it to Mr. or Mrs. Doyle with a sheet of instructions on how it should be signed. He was not present when the will was executed. Mr. Decker was informed that decedent had one relative in Jersey City, and the rest of her relatives lived in England, Ireland or Scotland. Evelyn Mace, niece of decedent, is the relative who resided in Jersey City. Mr. Decker states he was appointed administrator c.t.a. at the request of Mrs. Mace, Mr. and Mrs. Doyle, and Mr. Allen. However, at the time the complaint was filed in the surrogate's office requesting the will to be admitted to probate, and asking for letters of administration c.t.a. , the only renunciations submitted and filed were those of Evelyn A. Mace, Frank J.

Doyle and Elizabeth R. Doyle. Mr. Decker testified that as soon as the ten-day period had expired, he offered the will for probate, before he obtained any other renunciations. He states the reason for this action was caused by Mr. Doyle's knowledge that decedent had given him (Mr. Doyle) a sealed envelope, a month or two prior to her death, which was put in a tin box in the desk of her house. Mr. Doyle thought the envelope might contain securities. Thereafter, securities, bank books, etc., were found, amounting to approximately $500,000.

On July 20, 1960 Mr. Decker filed a petition for permission to make deposit of funds in lieu of providing full security, and to designate an approved national bank in accordance with N.J.S. 3 A:7-10. On said date, the surrogate signed an order directing the deposit of securities, and designating the First National Bank of Jersey City as custodian of the securities. Pursuant to this order, Mr. Decker made several deposits of securities with the designated bank. The last deposit was August 25, 1960. Mr. Decker, as administrator c.t.a. , filed a New Jersey inheritance tax return, preliminary federal tax notice, paid bills, and obtained an order barring creditors. The New Jersey inheritance tax report discloses that Mr. Decker requested $30,000 as commission, and $20,000 in fees for his attorney, John D. McMaster.

Mr. Decker and Mr. McMaster had a discussion with the Surrogate of Hudson County concerning the appointment of a general administrator. The surrogate believed that the personal estate of decedent should be administered by a person other than Mr. Decker as administrator c.t.a. The position of Mr. Decker was that he had practically completed the estate, and as administrator c.t.a. he had the right to administer the personal estate without the appointment of a general administrator. However, if one was required, he would obtain renunciations from all heirs and next of kin. The surrogate did not agree with his contention and appointed Mr. Keane on August 26, 1960.

The inheritance tax report, which was signed by Mr. Decker, contained a rider as follows:

"Belinda Watson, deceased, was a native of Ireland. Deponent knows that she has several brothers and sisters. One of her sisters is still alive and the families of the deceased brothers and sisters, who live in Ireland or England, having not been able to get any information up 'til this time. All the information we have up to this time is in Schedule E of the report. It will be necessary to conduct a proceeding to determine who the heirs at law and next of kin of the deceased are. That proceeding cannot be conducted until after the final account is filed."

The will of Belinda Watson, which was probated by the surrogate on July 14, 1960, was an incomplete will. It failed to name an executor and there was no provision for the disposition of decedent's residuary estate. On July 14, 1960 Mr. Decker filed a complaint seeking the probate of the will and appointment as administrator c.t.a. His complaint recited that there were seven heirs and next of kin of decedent. Mr. and Mrs. Frank J. Doyle were specific legatees in the will. At the time this application was made to the surrogate there was only one renunciation filed by decedent's relatives, that of Evelyn A. Mace. The other renunciation was from the Doyles. These renunciations requested that Mr. Decker be appointed administrator of the estate. The surrogate, on said date, signed a judgment admitting the will to probate, and issued letters of administration c.t.a. to William E. Decker. The surrogate's certificate recites "* * * and that William E. Decker, Administrator C.T.A. , is duly authorized to take upon himself the administration of the estate of the said testatrix agreeable to said will." Civil Procedure Form 44(c).

On July 28, 1960 James Geddes Allen, nephew of decedent, residing in California, signed a renunciation requesting Mr. Decker be appointed administrator with the will annexed. Annie E. Metzler, niece of decedent, residing in New York, signed a renunciation dated the day of ...

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