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In re Estate of McGuire

March 27, 2008


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Ocean County, CH-1451051.

Per curiam.


Submitted December 12, 2007

Before Judges Wefing and R. B. Coleman.

Robert W. McGuire, the son of decedent George C. McGuire, appeals from a January 25, 2007 order denying his motion for reconsideration of the denial of his December 14, 2006 motion to vacate an order of distribution entered in accordance with the January 29, 2001 Codicil to George's Last Will and Testament. Having considered the record in light of the contentions advanced by the parties on appeal, we affirm.

On July 11, 2001, the Ocean County Surrogate's Court admitted the Last Will and Codicil (the Will) of George C. McGuire to probate. On May 5, 2003, Cynthia Nowicki, the Executrix of the Estate, filed a verified complaint seeking a judgment directing distribution of the Estate in accordance with the Will and, if necessary, the depositing of Robert's twenty-five percent share into the Surrogate's Intermingled Account. The next day, the court entered an order that required Robert to show cause on June 19, 2003, why an order should not be entered providing for the deposit of his share of the Estate into the Surrogate's Intermingled Account or the Unclaimed Property Division of the State of New Jersey. Robert filed an Answer and Counterclaim seeking a formal accounting, and on June 19, 2003, the court granted Robert's attorney the opportunity to take discovery.

Interrogatories served on the Estate were answered in due course but after Robert and his attorney failed to request a hearing on the matter, Nowicki asked the court to sign the Order for Distribution. Thus, on October 21, 2003, the court entered an order directing that Robert's share of the distribution be deposited into the Unclaimed Property Division of the State of New Jersey, based on his refusal to sign the appropriate release and refunding bond. The shares of all other beneficiaries under the Will were distributed upon their execution of the releases and bonds.

Nearly three years later, in May 2006, Robert filed a motion to vacate the October 21, 2003 order, alleging undue influence in the execution of the Will. Following due consideration, the court entered an order dated December 15, 2006, denying Robert's motion. Subsequently, Robert filed the motion for reconsideration that is the subject of this appeal.

We affirm substantially for the reasons stated by Judge John A. Peterson in open court on January 25, 2007. In short, the movant failed to provide any substantiation of his suspicion concerning undue influence in the execution of the Will and Codicil. The suspicion appears to be predicated solely on the fact that bequests were made to the testator's son (twenty-five percent) and to four unrelated women, who were allegedly testator's mistresses or family members of former mistresses. Yet, the record is utterly devoid of any evidence supporting Robert's allegations that George's Will was the product of undue influence.

It is generally presumed that a testator is of sound mind and competent when executing a will. Haynes v. First Nat'l Bank of N.J., 87 N.J. 163, 176 (1981). However, a will may be overturned if tainted by undue influence. Ibid. In In re Niles Trust, the Court generally defined undue influence as "mental, moral or physical exertion which has destroyed the free agency of a testator [or settlor] by preventing the testator [or settlor] from following the dictates of his own mind and will and accepting instead the domination and influence of another." 176 N.J. 282, 299 (2003) (quoting Haynes, supra, 87 N.J. at 176). The Court has articulated that:

The burden of proving undue influence lies upon the contestant unless the will benefits one who stood in a confidential relationship to the testatrix and there are additional circumstances of a suspicious character present which require explanation. In such case the law raises a presumption of undue influence and the burden of proof is shifted to the proponent. [In re Rittenhouse's Will, 19 N.J. 376 378-79 (1955).]

Robert asserts "that there is evidence of undue influence because the testator was a sickly individual who was dependent upon others for the necessaries and comforts of mind and body and could easily be importuned by those who surrounded him." Robert further asserts that his father "was physically weak and sick and being cared for by one of the beneficiaries in her capacity as a nurse." Such allegations are unsubstantiated in the record. The extent of proof offered by Robert is a single line in a certification that George was sick during the years prior to his death. Contrary to Robert's unsupported assertions, George's decision to leave a substantial portion of his estate to individuals that were, to all appearances, objects of his affection, though not his blood relatives, does not without more, bespeak undue influence. Robert did not discharge his burden.

Moreover, R. 4:49-2 provides that "a motion for . . . reconsideration . . . shall state with specificity the basis on which it is made, including a statement of the matters or controlling decisions which counsel believes the court has overlooked or as to which it has erred." In Cummings v. Bahr, we noted the following:

Reconsideration should be utilized only for those cases which fall into that narrow corridor in which either (1) the Court has expressed its decision based upon a palpably incorrect or irrational basis, or (2) it is obvious that the Court either did not consider, or failed ...

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