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In the Matter of the Estate of John P.

March 11, 2011

IN THE MATTER OF THE ESTATE OF JOHN P. BOYLE, DECEASED.


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Monmouth County, Docket No. P-149-07.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Argued December 8, 2010

Before Judges Axelrad, R. B. Coleman and Lihotz.

We are called upon to review the Probate Part's enforcement of decedent's agreement to maintain a $250,000 life insurance policy for the benefit of his unemancipated son. The obligation was set forth in the final judgment of divorce (FJOD). Petitioner John M. Boyle filed a verified complaint against the estate of his father, decedent John P. Boyle, seeking $250,000. The complaint was challenged by the executor of decedent's estate, Cheryl Martin, who was living with decedent at the time of his death.

Following a bench trial, the court found decedent had an obligation to maintain a $250,000 life insurance policy for petitioner's benefit until he was emancipated; at the time of decedent's death petitioner was not emancipated; and decedent breached his legal obligation when he failed to maintain the stated life insurance policy. Therefore, the court concluded the estate was obligated to pay petitioner $250,000.

On appeal, the estate, in its multi-point brief, challenges the Probate Part's jurisdiction to enforce a Family Part FJOD and argues the court erred in its interpretation of the divorce provisions and the application of the law when entering judgment and awarding petitioner attorney's fees. Finally, the estate seeks reversal based on an alleged conflict of interest by the trial judge.

Following our review of these arguments, in light of the record and applicable law, we affirm.

I.

Petitioner was the sole child of decedent born during his marriage to Susan Boyle. The couple divorced on July 5, 1995. They had reached a resolution of the issues collateral to the request for divorce, which were set forth in the FJOD. The insurance obligation at issue here was stated in paragraph 6, as follows:

The husband shall continue to provide a life insurance policy through his place of employment in the amount of $250,000 and name both the wife and the wife as trustee for the benefit of the child of the marriage as beneficiaries until such [] time [as] alimony terminates. Once alimony has terminated, the husband shall continue to provide said policy naming the child as beneficiary of the entire policy.

At the time of divorce, decedent was a practicing trial attorney and his firm provided the designated life insurance policy. Nine months after the divorce, decedent's alimony obligation to Susan terminated, and he changed the designated beneficiary of the life insurance death benefit to petitioner.

Many years later, decedent began suffering from depression, which limited his ability to work as a full-time litigator. In July 2002, decedent filed a motion to reduce child support, which was unopposed. In light of his changed financial circumstances, the requested relief was granted. Decedent's motion did not request, and the court did not address, any modification of the life insurance obligation in paragraph 6.

Decedent left his law firm and began performing per diem work for other firms. He also learned he had lung cancer, which eventually prevented him from working.

In 2005, petitioner, who continued to live with his mother, graduated from high school and enrolled as a full-time student at Ocean County Community College. The following year, when petitioner was nineteen, decedent passed away.

Petitioner learned decedent had terminated the life insurance contract that had been in effect. Although he was the sole beneficiary of the policy, petitioner had not received notice that the policy had been canceled.

Martin, who was named the sole beneficiary of decedent's estate, probated decedent's will and was issued Letters Testamentary. Petitioner filed a verified complaint in the Probate Part seeking payment from the estate assets, including the sum of $250,000 based on decedent's obligation in paragraph 6 of the FJOD.

At the conclusion of the bench trial, Judge Cleary found decedent breached his obligation to maintain a life insurance policy for the benefit of his son and entered a judgment awarding him $250,000 on November 21, 2008. The estate appealed from the judgment. Thereafter, an enforcement application was filed and granted by an order ...


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