May 16, 2012
HENRY MANGARELLI, JR., INDIVIDUALLY AND ON BEHALF OF THE ESTATE OF HENRY A. MANGARELLI, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
RUTH E. SNYDER, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.
On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Passaic County, Docket No. L-2007-09.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted April 16, 2012
Before Judges Parrillo and Grall.
This appeal involves a dispute between half-siblings about the shifting of their father's assets to an account that passed outside his will that was accomplished during the illness that preceded their father's death. Although plaintiff Henry Mangarelli, Jr. was designated as their father's sole beneficiary in his will, Henry Mangarelli, Sr. placed the bulk of his assets in an account he held jointly with his daughter, defendant Ruth E. Snyder, prior to his death.
Following his father's death, plaintiff commenced this action alleging that defendant exerted undue influence, inducing their father to establish and fund the joint account. The case was tried to Judge Rothstadt, who found in favor of plaintiff and entered a $176,959.98 judgment.
Defendant appeals, arguing that the judgment rests on the judge's clearly erroneous determination that she had a confidential relationship with her father that gave rise to a presumption of undue influence that she was obligated to rebut. Her objections are not to the judge's legal conclusions, but to his evaluation of the testimony and the witnesses' credibility. We have reviewed the record in light of the arguments presented and concluded that the judgment is "based on findings of fact which are adequately supported by evidence," R. 2:11-3(e)(1)(A), and that defendant's arguments "are without sufficient merit to warrant discussion in a written opinion," R. 2:11-3(e)(1)(E). We affirm substantially for the reasons stated by Judge Rothstadt in the opinion he filed on April 5, 2011. We provide only a brief summary of the facts the judge found and his legal conclusions.
Henry Mangarelli, Sr. died on January 29, 2008. He was ninety years old. He lived independently and managed his affairs without difficulty until 2004. At that point, his children began to notice signs of degeneration such as his loss of a sense of time and his difficulty recalling where he had left his personal belongings. In January 2005, Henry was hospitalized. Plaintiff went to his side, and his father gave him several things he had with him for safekeeping, including $11,000 consisting of cash and two checks that he had received on withdrawing funds from his accounts. Henry endorsed the checks, and because plaintiff did not have access to his father's accounts, plaintiff deposited the checks in his own account and put the cash in his own safe.
Following Henry's release from the hospital, he did not recall making the withdrawals from his accounts and did not believe plaintiff when he reminded him about the checks. Plaintiff kept the money in his account in the hope of convincing his father that he had not stolen the money. He returned the money months later when he received a letter from Henry's attorney in June 2005. By Christmas 2005, plaintiff and his father resumed communications, but Henry still refused to discuss the $11,000.
Between January and December 2005, defendant saw her father more frequently than she had in the past. She went to the bank with him and, in May 2005, she took her father to an attorney who had represented her in the past. Although the attorney advised Henry that they should meet alone, Henry insisted on defendant's participation.
The attorney subsequently drafted a new will for Henry and a power of attorney in favor of defendant. He also explained to Henry how money could pass outside his will, which the attorney understood was the method Henry wanted to use to transfer funds to defendant and to ensure that plaintiff received nothing. According to the lawyer, although he drafted the will to leave Henry's estate to plaintiff, the plan was that Henry would transfer the assets to defendant outside the will by establishing a joint account. About the same time, Henry named defendant as the beneficiary of his annuity account, and in June 2005, this attorney wrote the letter to plaintiff about the $11,000. Henry signed his new will naming plaintiff as his beneficiary later that month.
Henry was hospitalized again early in 2006. After he was discharged, he and defendant went to a financial advisor and opened a joint account, listing her address. The advisor consolidated all but one of Henry's accounts into that joint account. The lone exception was an account on which the
beneficiaries were defendant and plaintiff's wife.
Between June 2005 and Henry's death in January 2008, plaintiff and his family were in regular contact with Henry but never discussed financial matters. Defendant made Henry's funeral arrangements and paid the expenses and his bills from the account in which she and plaintiff's wife had an interest. Apart from the accounts in which defendant had an interest, there was nothing in Henry's estate other than a truck that plaintiff sold for $5000.
On those facts, the judge concluded that defendant had a confidential relationship with her father. Contrary to defendant's claim, that finding is based on adequate evidence and a proper application of the law. Consequently, we cannot disturb it. Rova Farms Resort, Inc. v. Investors Ins. Co. of Am., 65 N.J. 474, 483-84 (1974).
The essential elements of a confidential relationship - confidence in and dependence upon the person benefited - are present. See Pascale v. Pascale, 113 N.J. 20, 34 (1988) (noting the significance of a parent's delegation of authority to manage legal and financial affairs to a child); Estate of Ostlund v. Ostlund, 391 N.J. Super. 390, 401-02 (App. Div. 2007) (listing characteristics of a confidential relationship, such as one person's placing confidence in another who exercises control). Henry consulted defendant's former attorney, and she accompanied him to meetings with that attorney despite his advice to the contrary. Henry also had defendant accompany him to meetings with his financial advisor, and by executing a power of attorney he gave defendant authority to conduct his legal and financial affairs months before he established their joint account. That evidence demonstrates Henry's confidence in defendant and his dependence upon her relevant to the transactions from which she benefited.
Defendant argues that a confidential relationship is not enough to give rise to a presumption of undue influence. But the judge recognized that the presumption is warranted "[w]hen there is a confidential relationship coupled with suspicious circumstances." Estate of Stockdale, 196 N.J. 275, 303 (2008). The judge found suspicious circumstances as well. Here, the judge deemed it suspicious that Henry executed a will naming plaintiff as the sole beneficiary with a plan to have his assets pass outside, but he then delayed nearly six months before establishing the joint account essential to achieve that goal. We see no basis for disturbing that determination, because it too is supported by the evidence and consistent with the law.
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