On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Probate Part, Cape May County, Docket No. P-107-10.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted February 28, 2012
Before Judges Carchman and Nugent.
Appellant Kristina Mirando appeals from the January 5, 2011 order admitting the will of her putative father, Darryl A. Fields, to probate, directing that letters testamentary be issued to respondent Lisa Perkins, and dismissing her counterclaim. The trial court determined that Mirando lacked standing to contest the will because she could not prove that Fields was her father. We conclude that Mirando submitted sufficient evidence of paternity to establish standing to dispute the probate of the will. Accordingly, we reverse and remand for further proceedings.
On September 27, 2010, Darryl Fields executed a pre-printed, form will, in which he left his entire estate to his landlords, Lisa Perkins and her husband, with whom he lived, and appointed Lisa Perkins*fn1 as executrix. Five weeks and three days later, on November 4, 2010, Fields, then age forty-eight, died. On November 5, 2010, Mirando filed a caveat to any "will and testament of Darryl Andrew Fields . . . ." Mirando asserted that she was the "daughter of said decedent."
Perkins filed a verified complaint for probate and an order to show cause. The order to show cause directed Mirando to appear on January 5, 2011, and show cause why the court should not admit Fields' will to Probate and issue letters testamentary to Perkins. Mirando answered the complaint and filed a motion for leave to file a counterclaim;*fn2 Perkins answered the counterclaim; and the matters came before the court on January 5, 2011.
On the return date of the order to show cause, Perkins argued that Fields' will was valid, and that until Mirando established a parent-child relationship, she had no standing to contest the will's validity. Mirando responded that she had filed with her pleadings three documents that established she was Fields' daughter; her birth certificate, her mother's affidavit of paternity, and the certificate she signed authorizing the cremation of Fields' last remains, which could be signed only by a descendant of Fields. She argued that since Fields was an alcoholic, she had to "explore as to the incident surrounding the signing of [the] will[,]" including the relationship of the witnesses to the beneficiaries, and whether Fields had testamentary capacity or was subject to undue influence.
After listening to the attorneys, the court suggested that it take some testimony from Perkins and Mirando, and asked counsel if they objected to the court questioning their clients. Counsel had no objection, so the court questioned the parties.
Perkins testified that she had been friends with Fields for about twenty years, and he had lived with her and her husband for about five years. Fields had come to live with them after he lost his job and his apartment went into foreclosure. He had no money to go anywhere. Perkins had not met Mirando until Mirando showed up at the Perkins' home the day after Field's died.
Perkins further testified that Fields had referred to Mirando once, approximately one-and-one-half years before he died. She had left a message on his telephone answering machine that she thought she was his daughter, that she was going to be married in a few months, and that she wanted to invite him to the wedding. She asked that he return her call. According to Perkins, Fields never received an invitation to the wedding, and he had no contact with Mirando again.
Fields told her that when he was eighteen years old, Mirando's mother was with a lot of men in the neighborhood, so the father could have been any one of them. In the twenty years Perkins had known Fields, he never spoke with Mirando or had any contact with her. Perkins had visited Fields' mother and father; his mother "would have loved to have had a granddaughter, and have had contact with her from the day she was born." Perkins had been to their home for dinner many times, but had never heard them discuss a granddaughter or a grandchild.
According to Perkins, shortly before signing the will at issue, Fields had probated his father's will and received an inheritance. He purchased a home next door to her, and decided to take a trip to North Carolina with her husband. Although he purchased the home ...