On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Probate Part, Monmouth County, Docket No. P-304-10.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted August 17, 2011
Before Judges J. N. Harris and Fasciale.
This appeal involves the question of the proper forum to resolve certain post-divorce equitable disputes swirling around what may become an insolvent estate. More fundamentally, however, we are faced with reviewing a pragmatic judicial decision related to the allocation of the business of the Chancery Division. See R. 4:3-1(a)(2) and -1(a)(3).
Peter Kokinakos (Kokinakos), Administrator of the Estate of John Kokinakos,*fn1 appeals from the November 19, 2010, judgment of the Chancery Division, Probate Part, dismissing his declaratory judgment complaint seeking that "all future matrimonial proceedings involving the Decedent, John Kokinakos, take place in the venue of Monmouth County Superior Court, Chancery Division, Probate Part." We affirm.
Decedent and Rena J. Kokinakos, now known as Rena J. Seter, were divorced pursuant to a dual final judgment dated August 18, 2009. That judgment incorporated the parties' Divorce Settlement Agreement, which secured decedent's alimony and child support obligations -- there were four children born of the union -- through a promise to execute a Last Will and Testament (the proposed will) "within ten (10) days" of August 18, 2009. The terms of the proposed will were supposed to (1) name Rena "as beneficiary of the first $600,000 of [decedent's] estate" to secure the alimony obligation, and (2) "designate the [children] as equal beneficiaries of the next $400,000 of [decedent's] estate, with [Rena] as trustee" to secure the child support obligation.
A draft of the proposed will was prepared, which provided for the payment to Rena of both the alimony and child support components. Unfortunately, the instrument was never executed, and on November 1, 2009, decedent passed away intestate. On December 2, 2009, Kokinakos qualified as the administrator of his son's estate.
Several months later, in July 2010, Rena filed an order to show cause in the Family Part seeking to join the estate as a party to her matrimonial action, and demanding immediate monetary, equitable, and declaratory relief reflective of the terms of the Divorce Settlement Agreement. By order dated August 31, 2010 -- later amended on October 5, 2010 -- a Family Part judge granted the application to join the estate as a party in the matrimonial action, directed the manner of disposing of the proceeds from the sale of the marital home,*fn2 enjoined the disposition of decedent's minority interest in two business entities in the hotel industry,*fn3 but denied the balance of Rena's application without prejudice. The Family Part judge specifically directed the parties to address "the issue of jurisdiction" by motion in either the "Probate Court or the Family Court."
On September 24, 2010, Kokinakos filed a verified complaint and order to show cause in the Probate Part seeking only a declaration of rights "[m]andating that all future proceedings involving the Estate of John Kokinakos be conducted in the Monmouth County Superior Court, Chancery Division, Probate Part." The complaint did not seek to initiate a proceeding pursuant to Rule 4:91-1 (relating to insolvent estates). After consideration of the parties' legal positions, the Probate judge dismissed the declaratory judgment complaint with prejudice. This appeal ensued.*fn4
Although the Family and Probate judges couched the dispute in terms of jurisdiction, and the parties have followed those leads in their arguments to us, we consider the dispositive issue as wholly unconnected to jurisdiction. Cf. Nicastro v. McIntyre Mach. Am., Ltd., __ U.S. __, __, 131 S. Ct. 2780, 2789, 180 L. Ed. 2d 765, 776 (2011) (explaining that "jurisdiction is in the first instance a question of authority rather than fairness"). Instead, we view the problem as one related to the proper allocation of the judicial business of the Chancery Division, not implicating jurisdictional concerns. When so viewed, we believe that the Probate judge's decision to decline Kokinakos the declaratory relief he sought was plainly not an abuse of discretion, and comported with applicable legal principles.
Each Part of the Chancery Division has full authority -- jurisdiction -- to resolve equitable disputes within the orbit of Rule 4:3-1(a). That Rule serves as a division of labor, allocating to each of the three Parts certain types of business in order to foster the effective administration of justice. However, it does not purport to create hermetically sealed niches to the exclusion of other related matters. The Family Part, for example, is not jurisdictionally barred from resolving ...