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In re Estate of Mandeng

February 24, 2009

IN THE MATTER OF THE ESTATE OF AUGUSTIN NGWE MANDENG


On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Probate Part, Essex County, Docket No. CP-0192-2006.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Argued October 20, 2008

Before Judges Reisner, Sapp-Peterson, and Alvarez.

Petitioner Tebeyene Mamo (Mamo) appeals from a summary judgment of the Chancery Division, Probate Part, dismissing her verified complaint. By way of summary judgment, the court also found that respondent Elizabeth Mandeng (Mandeng), administratrix of the estate of Augustin Ngwe Mandeng, was the last surviving spouse of the decedent and could therefore continue to act in that capacity. We affirm.

On February 16, 2005, Augustin Ngwe Mandeng died intestate. On August 9, 2005, the Essex County Surrogate's Court issued letters of administration for his estate to Mandeng, as his surviving spouse. On January 31, 2007, Mamo filed an order to show cause and verified complaint seeking reversal of Mandeng's appointment as administratrix, an accounting, rescission of any death certificates that did not name Mamo as the decedent's sole surviving spouse, and similar equitable relief.

On March 8, 2007, Mandeng filed an answer and counterclaim together with responsive certifications. Trial was scheduled for September 10, 2007, and on August 29, Mandeng filed a motion for summary judgment, which resulted in the rescheduling of the trial to October 26, 2007. Mandeng's motion was resubmitted on September 26.

Thereafter, a case management conference was scheduled for January 2008, at which time, according to Mamo, argument on the summary judgment motion was also scheduled to occur. On October 24, 2007, however, Mamo's counsel received a call from the court informing him that the argument on the summary judgment motion would be conducted on October 26. Because he had not yet filed papers in opposition, counsel objected and requested an adjournment until January. The request was denied, and summary judgment was granted.

On October 26, 2007, the court rendered an oral opinion and issued a written order dismissing Mamo's complaint with prejudice. The court found that Mandeng was the last surviving spouse of the decedent and was thereby entitled to all the legal benefits resulting from that status. On November 13, 2007, Mamo moved for reconsideration. The application was denied on December 14, 2007, and this appeal followed.

The decedent, a native of the Republic of Cameroon, married Mandeng on August 25, 1973, in Ohio. They had two children, both born in New York, one in 1975, and the second in 1977. The decedent was employed by the United Nations (U.N.) and was posted to Burkina Faso in 1989. Mandeng and the children remained in New York, although they visited the decedent in August 1989. While he continued to be posted to other African locations, she and the children continued to reside in New York.

Mamo, also an employee of the U.N., commenced her relationship with the decedent in Ethiopia in 1982. He invited her to New York, where she continued to work for the U.N. Although the decedent remained in the marital home, Mamo maintains that he was separated from Mandeng at the time. In January 1987, Mamo and the decedent had a son. When the decedent was posted to Burkina Faso, he and Mamo, who was then posted to Chad, frequently visited each other.

The decedent allegedly obtained a divorce from Mandeng dated May 15, 1989, in Cameroon. The motion court found the divorce decree to be a fraud, however, noting questionable spellings and obvious errors on the face of the document as well as a letter proffered by Mandeng from an attorney in Cameroon indicating that the purported divorce document was a fake. In a May 16, 2007 letter supplied to the motion court, the chief registrar of the Littoral Court of Appeal of Cameroon stated that there was no record of the purported divorce on file in their registry. On July 26, 2007, the chief registrar authored another letter stating that because there was no record of the divorce decree in their court, "it is to be concluded that the said decision is not authentic."

Mamo claims that she believed that the Cameroonian divorce was legitimate. After the decedent made her aware of the document, he married Mamo in a civil ceremony in Cameroon on November 28, 1989, and later participated in a ceremonial wedding on September 15, 1990, in her home country of Ethiopia.

Mandeng and her oldest son claim that they knew nothing of the decedent's marriage to Mamo or of any divorce decree from Cameroon or elsewhere. In fact, the first Mandeng learned of any divorce proceeding was a New Jersey divorce complaint served ...


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