On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Probate Part, Hudson County.
Michels, Baime and Wallace. The opinion of the court was delivered by Michels, P.J.A.D.
Plaintiff Norma Chrisomalis appeals from a judgment of the Law Division, Probate Part, entered in favor of defendants Louis Chrisomalis, Stephen Chrisomalis, The Law Offices of Eichenbaum, Kantrowitz, Leff & Gulko, and David Leff, Esq. The judgment dismissed plaintiff's action to invalidate an antenuptial agreement which waived her right to an elective share in the estate of decedent, Andrew Chrisomalis.
Plaintiff instituted this action seeking, among other relief, a declaration that the antenuptial agreement she had executed, and the waiver of her elective share in decedent's estate contained therein, was null and void, and that the amount of her elective share should thus be fixed. Plaintiff also sought the appointment of a disinterested administrator pendente lite in order to identify the assets of decedent's estate, and an accounting by defendants Louis and Stephen Chrisomalis of their administration, as co-executors of decedent's estate, or, alternatively, the appointment of an independent accountant. Finally, plaintiff sought compensatory damages and attorney fees from defendants The Law Offices of Eichenbaum, Kantrowitz, Leff
& Gulko and David Leff, Esq. based on their alleged negligence and breach of duty for their failure to "carry out decedent's intent to provide for [her] in his [w]ill."
Defendants Louis and Stephen Chrisomalis denied any liability to plaintiff and asserted by way of separate defenses, among other things, that plaintiff's claim to an elective share was barred by her waiver under N.J.S.A. 3B:8-10, as well as by the application of the doctrines of equitable estoppel and unclean hands. Additionally, defendants sought by way of a third-party complaint against plaintiff's sons, third-party defendants William, Joseph and Donald Hazley, the return of all monies and properties transferred by decedent to them. Defendants also advanced a counterclaim against plaintiff which sought credit against her elective share, if any, for the difference between the value of property transferred to the aforementioned third-party defendants and the value of property in their present possession, return of numerous items personally held by plaintiff which allegedly belonged to decedent's estate, return of all monies and properties transferred or expended by decedent in reliance on the effectiveness of the antenuptial agreement, and return of real estate held by plaintiff and decedent as tenants-in-common.
The trial court bifurcated the trial of the issue of the validity of the antenuptial agreement from the trial of the issue of the valuation of decedent's assets. At the Conclusion of a lengthy bench trial, Judge Schaeffer in the Law Division, Probate Part, held that the "fair disclosure" standard of N.J.S.A. 3B:8-10 concerning the waiver of a spouse's elective share, and not the relevant provision of the Uniform Premarital Agreement Act, applied and had been met. Additionally, the trial court held that "plaintiff made an intelligent and informed waiver of independent counsel," given her background, level of education, prior legal experience and opportunity to be represented by, or seek consultation with, her brother-in-law, who was an attorney and a retired Superior Court Judge. Finally, the trial court held that plaintiff was equitably estopped from setting aside the
antenuptial agreement as a result of her fraudulent act of signing the agreement while intending not to be bound by it, and thus, causing decedent to detrimentally rely upon it when marrying her. The trial court thereupon dismissed all claims asserted by plaintiff in her complaint and defendants in their counterclaim and third-party complaint, with the exception of their claim to a 1985 Lincoln automobile.
Plaintiff appeals, seeking a reversal of the judgment validating the antenuptial agreement, and a remand for trial of the other issues raised by her complaint. She contends generally that (1) the antenuptial agreement was invalid as a matter of law and, therefore, not enforceable; (2) the conflict of interest and professional malpractice of attorney Leff, who purported to represent both her and decedent in the preparation of the antenuptial agreement, rendered it voidable, and thus, invalidated the waiver of her elective share, and (3) the trial court violated her due process rights by the manner in which it conducted the trial and decided the case. We disagree and affirm.
We are satisfied from our study of the record and the arguments presented that substantial credible evidence in the record, as a whole, reasonably warrants the findings and Conclusions of the trial court. We discern no sound reason or legal justification for disturbing these findings and Conclusions. Leimgruber v. Claridge Associates, Ltd., 73 N.J. 450, 455-56, 375 A.2d 652 (1977); Rova Farms Resort v. Investors Ins. Co., 65 N.J. 474, 484, 323 A.2d 495 (1974); State v. Johnson, 42 N.J. 146, 161-62, 199 A.2d 809 (1964). See also R. 2:11-3(e)(1)(A). Moreover, all of the issues of law raised are clearly without merit. See R. 2:11-3(e)(1)(E).
We agree entirely with the trial court's Conclusion that plaintiff was equitably estopped by her fraud and unclean hands from seeking a declaration that the antenuptial agreement was invalid and unenforceable. The basic equitable maxim of ...