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In the Matter of the Estate

July 24, 2012

IN THE MATTER OF THE ESTATE OF ALBERTHA BLACKWELL.


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Probate Part, Essex County, Docket No. CP-0057-2009.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Submitted May 23, 2012

Before Judges Lihotz and Waugh.

Appellant Virginia Jeffries appeals from a Chancery Division order rejecting her authenticity challenge and allowing the probate of an instrument purported to be the Last Will and Testament (the Will) of her mother, Albertha Blackwell (the decedent). The sole beneficiary named in the Will is A.Q., the decedent's minor granddaughter. On appeal, Jeffries maintains the probate judge erred by allowing the Will to be probated because it was undated, not self-proving, and otherwise failed to comply with the attestation requirements for a valid will.

We have considered these arguments in light of the record and applicable law. We affirm.

Decedent died on November 15, 2008, survived by six of her eleven children, and eight grandchildren. Only one grandchild, A.Q., was a minor. Following the death of A.Q.'s mother, decedent's daughter, decedent had been appointed A.Q.'s guardian.

After decedent's death, Donna Blackwell-Wooten, one of decedent's daughters, found the will among decedent's possessions. According to Jeffries, Blackwell-Wooten took the Will and declined to allow other family members to review it. Blackwell-Wooten and her sister Linda Lee then presented the Will for probate. The six-page document was drafted by decedent's long-time attorney Deborah Winston, who notarized the instrument and observed its execution in the presence of two signing witnesses. The Will named Blackwell-Wooten and Lee executors and bequeathed the decedent's entire estate to A.Q.

Jeffries and another sister filed a caveat challenging probate of the Will. In response, Blackwell-Wooten and Lee filed a complaint to admit the Will to probate. Jeffries filed an answer and a counterclaim, alleging the Will was invalid or the result of undue influence. Following oral argument, without benefit of an evidentiary hearing, the probate judge dismissed the caveats and admitted the Will to probate.

On appeal, we reversed. In the Matter of the Estate of Albertha Blackwell, No. A-4816-08 (App. Div. May 3, 2010) (slip op. at 10). Noting the Will was not self-proving, we stated: the purported Will uses signature language for the testator that is consistent with a will drafted under N.J.S.A. 3B:3-2, but the last page lacks the required language for the attestation clause used in the context of a will drawn under that statute.

Instead, the witnesses signed their names below language more or less consistent with a self-proving affidavit pursuant to N.J.S.A. 3B:3-4, but the purported testator did not. In addition, the document, including the witnesses' signature and the scrivener's jurat, is undated. There may also be some ambiguity as to whether page six is part of the Will or a separate document. Although it is numbered consistent with being the last page of a six page document, there is no signature by the testator on the side as there was on the first five pages. However, that may be the scrivener's error, as apparently was the failure to date the document. [Id. at 9.]

We remanded the matter for a plenary hearing to determine the authenticity and validity of the will. Id. at 10.

On remand, the probate judge conducted a three-day hearing. On behalf of plaintiffs, testimony was presented by Blackwell-Wooten, her husband Albert Wooten, Winston, as scrivener, and the witnesses to decedent's execution of the Will, Beverly Johnson and Bessie Dunk. Jeffries and decedent's son Nathan Blackwell testified on behalf of defendants.

The trial judge was unconvinced by defendant's claims that deficiencies obviated the Will's validity and, in a written opinion, found no evidence to support Jeffries' assertion that the Will was not signed by decedent. Rather, the judge found persuasive the ...


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