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In re Estate of Roccamonte

October 23, 2002

IN THE MATTER OF THE ESTATE OF ARTHUR J. ROCCAMONTE, SR. MARY THERESA SOPKO, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
DOREEN SLACKMAN, ADMINISTRATRIX OF THE ESTATE OF ARTHUR J. ROCCAMONTE, SR., DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



On appeal from the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 346 N.J. Super. 107 (2001).

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

The Court determines whether the decedent gave an oral promise of support for life to plaintiff and, if so, whether the promise is enforceable against his estate.

Plaintiff was born in 1925. She married in 1941 and worked in New York City's garment center. Plaintiff and her husband gave birth to a daughter. In the 1950's, plaintiff met Arthur Roccamonte, who owned a trucking business. He was also married and had two children. Roccamonte and plaintiff began an affair. They lived together intermittently until the mid-1960s when plaintiff moved to California for the purpose of ending her relationship with Roccamonte. Roccamonte promised plaintiff that if she came back to him, he would divorce his wife. He also promised that he would provide for her financially for the rest of her life. Relying on those promises, plaintiff returned and divorced her husband. In 1970 Roccamonte leased an apartment in New Jersey where he and plaintiff lived together. Plaintiff's daughter lived with them. In 1973 the building was converted to cooperative ownership and Roccamonte purchased an interest which he titled in plaintiff's name. They lived together in the apartment as husband and wife until his death in 1995. Roccamonte never divorced his wife, and continued throughout his life to support his wife and children generously.

Roccamonte was a man of considerable wealth and the lifestyle he afforded plaintiff and the financial support he provided her was consistent with his affluence. In addition to improvements to the apartment, a weekly cash allowance of $600, clothes, jewelry and vacations, Roccamonte paid the college tuition and medical expenses of plaintiff's daughter. Meanwhile, plaintiff continued to work in the garment industry until 1990, earning a take-home pay averaging about $250 weekly. During their years together, plaintiff committed herself to her relationship with Roccamonte, conducting herself in private and in public as a loyal and devoted wife.

As plaintiff grew older, she expressed her concerns about her financial future in the event she survived Roccamonte. She testified that he repeatedly assured her that he would see to it she was provided for during her life, and he repeated these promises in the presence of other witnesses, who also testified. Roccamonte, however, died intestate. On Roccamonte's death, plaintiff received the proceeds of an insurance policy on his life in the amount of $18,000 and a certificate of deposit in her name in the amount of $10,000. She also had title to the apartment, the maintenance cost of which was then approximately $950 per month, and her jewelry. Finally, she received two weekly payments of $1,000 immediately after Roccamonte's death from his son, who was managing the trucking business. Plaintiff is now 77 years old and is entirely dependent on social security payments and food stamps. She is living with her disabled daughter, who is in receipt only of social security disability payments.

Seven months after Roccamonte's death, plaintiff commenced this action against the estate, seeking a lump -sum support award. The Superior Court, Probate Part, dismissed plaintiff's complaint on the basis that she failed to make a prima facie showing of a valid contract to make a testamentary disposition. The Appellate Division reversed, finding that the trial court had failed to consider plaintiff's claim that she was entitled to support on a palimony theory. The Appellate Division remanded to the Probate Part for a hearing to determine, in part, whether plaintiff had an enforceable contract claim assertable against the decedent's estate as his successor in interest, apart from any testamentary qualities decedent's representations might have had. A plenary trial was held and the trial judge rendered his oral opinion dismissing the complaint. On appeal, the majority of the Appellate Division panel concluded that a fair reading of the record in the trial court compelled the finding that Roccamonte had made an enforceable oral promise of support for life to plaintiff, and that the promise was enforceable against his estate. The dissenting judge was of the view that the trial court failed to make a finding of that promise and, even if the promise had been made, it would not be enforceable against the estate. 346 N.J. Super. 107 (App. Div. 2001).

A-75-01 In the Matter of the Estate of Arthur J. Roccamonte, Sr. 2.

HELD: A palimony contract was entered into by the decedent and plaintiff in which plaintiff was promised support for her life, and that contract is enforceable against the decedent's estate.

1. Unmarried adults, even those who are married to others, have the right to choose to cohabit together in a marital- like relationship, and if one of those partners is induced to do so by a promise of support, the promise will be enforced. A palimony contract may be oral, express or implied. The contract's existence and its terms are ordinarily determinable from the parties' conduct and the surrounding circumstances. Thus, a general promise of support for life, broadly expressed, made by one party to the other with some form of consideration given by the other will suffice. If such a promise of support for the promisee's lifetime is found to have been made, without further specification of its terms, and that promise is broken, the court will enforce it by awarding the promisee a one-time lump sum in an amount predicated upon the present value of the reasonable future support defendant promised to provide, to be computed by reference to the promisee's life expectancy. (Pp. 8 to 9).

2. The formation of a marital-type relationship between unmarried persons is not exclusively dependent upon one partner providing maid service. Rather, it is the undertaking of a way of life in which two people commit to each other, foregoing other liaisons and opportunities, doing for each other whatever each is capable of doing, providing companionship and fulfilling each other's needs, financial, emotional, physical, and social, as best they are able. Each couple defines its way of life and each partner's exp ected contribution to it in its own way. The entry into such a relationship and then conducting oneself in accordance with its unique character is consideration in full measure. Here, plaintiff provided that consideration until her obligation was discharged by Roccamonte's death. (Pp. 9 to 14).

3. Complete dependency by the promisee on the promisor is not a sine qua non of a valid palimony agreement. The issue is one of economic inequality and the relevant question is whether the promisee is self-sufficient enough to provide for herself with a reasonable degree of economic comfort appropriate in the circumstances. Here, the fact that plaintiff chose to be employed cannot result in her forfeiture of the support promise in view of her modest salary, the gross disproportion between her economic means and Roccamonte's, and the gross disproportion between her earnings and the standard of living provided by Roccamonte. Moreover, plaintiff was no longer working when Roccamonte died and was relying exclusively on him for her support. (Pp. 14 to 15).

4. The Court finds that the promise of support for life was made, if not expressly as it appears to have been, then by implication. Roccamonte's break from his family and his marital-like relationship with plaintiff resulted from his successful efforts to induce plaintiff's return to him from California by representing that her future would be neither prejudiced nor compromised. Roccamonte's concern for plaintiff's economic well-being was also evident in his lavish provisions for her during their twenty-five years together. It appears highly unlikely that he intended to leave her to an impoverished old age or that she accepted that risk when she reunited with him. The promise that he would see to it that she was adequately provided for during her lifetime was both the corollary for and the condition of their relationship. (Pp. 15 to 18).

5. Roccamonte's duty to support plaintiff for her life was not discharged by his death and must, consequently, be discharged by his estate. It is not Roccamonte's death, however, that triggered plaintiff's entitlement, but rather his failure, during his lifetime, to have made adequate provision for the plaintiff, an obligation whose fulfillment does not depend solely or exclusively on testamentary disposition. The promise is a contractual undertaking binding the estate like any other contractual commitment the decedent may have made in his lifetime. (Pp. 18 to 21).

6. Because palimony claims typically are unique to a family-type relationship, this matter is remanded to the Family Part for the fixing of a lump -sum payment. That amount must be based on plaintiff's life expectancy at the time of Roccamonte's death. In the event of any prospect of delay in the remand proceedings, plaintiff may seek temporary periodic support from the Estate. (Pp. 21 to 24).

The judgment of the Appellate Division is MODIFIED to require the remand proceedings to be conducted in the Family Part. In all other respects it is AFFIRMED.

CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES COLEMAN, LONG, VERNIERO, LaVECCHIA and ZAZZALI join in ...


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