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In re Estate of Sasson

August 16, 2006


On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Morris County.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Collester, J.A.D.



Argued January 18, 2006

Before Judges Collester, Lisa and S.L. Reisner.

John C. Sasson died intestate on October 12, 2004, at the age of fifty-seven. He was survived by two brothers, Steven and Richard. On October 20, 2004, Steven J. Sasson qualified as administrator of John's estate, later valued at about $1.1 million. Included was a townhouse titled in John's sole name at 21 Ridgewood Drive in Randolph, where he lived with Emily Springer. Pursuant to a verified complaint on behalf of the estate, an order to show cause issued to compel Emily to vacate the townhouse. She filed a counterclaim to direct the estate to convey the townhouse and John's 2000 BMW to her as well as a portion of his estate based upon a promise John made to her that he would support her for life. Judge Kenneth C. MacKenzie, J.S.C., granted the estate's motion for summary judgment and dismissed the counterclaim. He directed Emily to vacate the townhouse within sixty days and to pay the carrying costs. Execution was stayed pending the outcome of this appeal.

In her appeal Emily does not pursue an argument against Judge MacKenzie's ruling that the promises made by John of the townhouse and his BMW were unenforceable since there was no actual delivery or relinquishment of ownership by John to constitute valid inter vivos gift. Farris v. Farris Engineering Corp., 7 N.J. 487, 500-01 (1951). Nor does she pursue a claim for the value of services she rendered during John's lifetime. Rather she argues that she is entitled to a portion of the estate's assets based on her claim that John promised that he would "take care of her" for the rest of her life.

There is considerable dispute as to what promises, if any, were made by John to Emily. However, since her appeal is from summary judgment, we are obliged to view the facts and inferences in a light most favorable to her. Brill v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 142 N.J. 520, 540 (1995); R. 4:46-2.

John and Emily met in January 2002, and began dating a month later. Both were unmarried. John was fifty-four and an engineer employed by the United States Army at Picatinny Arsenal with an annual salary of about $125,000. He was in the process of ending a twenty-one-year relationship with a woman, and was still living in her home until he was able to purchase a home for himself. Emily was thirty-eight and an attorney in private practice since 1999. When she met John, she was living in her solely-owned condominium in Monmouth Beach and working as an associate in a Red Bank law firm where she earned about $50,000.

Although their relationship was only a few months old, John asked Emily to come live with him when he moved into his townhouse. She agreed and picked out most of the furniture and furnishings. While she still maintained her Monmouth Beach property, Emily moved to Randolph shortly after John's closing on June 22, 2002. Emily and John completed furnished the townhouse. They contracted various vendors and service people for repairs and improvements. Each shopped for food and supplies. Emily did the cleaning and housekeeping. She accompanied John to restaurants, sporting events, and the theater. She served as hostess at social and business gatherings at the townhouse and elsewhere.

Neighbors assumed that John and Emily were husband and wife, and John introduced Emily as his wife to various people in the community. They had theater subscriptions, resident tennis passes and service and repair contracts in the name of John and Emily Sasson. Mail arrived addressed to Emily under the name Emily Sasson, and Emily introduced herself as Emily Sasson to workmen who came to the house. She said that John often spoke of the townhouse as "our house," and sang to her the lyric of a Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young song about "our house." John paid the mortgage and all the carrying costs of the home except the telephone. He kept cash a drawer for Emily to use to pay household expenses.

As the months went on, Emily decided to give up her position as an associate in the Red Bank law firm. She said that John liked her to be home when he was home. He encouraged her to open her own practice and work mainly out of the townhouse. Emily said that John knew she would not make as much money but assured her that he would support her financially and emotionally in starting her own law practice. Emily left the law firm in May 2003. Her earnings decreased to about $10,000 over the next year. Her law office was called Law Center of Ocean & Monmouth, specializing in family law. She maintained a "virtual office" to meet clients in Sea Girt but did most of the work from an office in the Randolph townhouse with a computer, fax, printer and copier.

Emily certified that John promised to take care of and provide for her for the rest of her life in the townhouse. On December 7, 2003, he named Emily the beneficiary of his Sequoia IRA valued at approximately $150,000. He told her he would transfer to her the title to his 2002 BMW M3 when her auto lease expired in November 2004. John proposed to her on September 14, 2004, and gave her a diamond ring that belonged to his grandmother. They each told relatives and friends of the engagement. They planned to be married in a religious ceremony after an appropriate mourning period had elapsed for John's mother who had died in August.

Emily said that after her uncle died in September 2003, John asked her to draw up a will for him naming her as sole beneficiary of everything he owned. She told him she could not because of a conflict of interest and said he should meet with another attorney or draft one himself using the will forms that were on their shared computer. After John's mother died in late ...

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