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In the Matter of the Estate

January 18, 2013

IN THE MATTER OF THE ESTATE OF ELIZABETH TANKSLEY, DECEASED.


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Camden County, Docket No. CP-0049-2011.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Submitted October 15, 2012

Before Judges Espinosa and Guadagno.

Iris Randells appeals from an order entered on September 23, 2011, dismissing her complaint with prejudice. Appellant had sought to revoke the appointment of her sister, Dorothy Steele, as administratrix of their mother's estate and to vacate Steele's subsequent transfer of their mother's house to herself. As the motion judge failed to consider whether Steele's conduct constituted a fraud on the court and decided contested issues of fact without a hearing, we reverse and remand for a plenary hearing.

Elizabeth Tanksley (decedent) died intestate on January 13, 2000. She was survived by six adult children, including Randells and Steele. Until her death, decedent resided in a house in Camden (Property). Decedent's estate included a life insurance policy and the Property, which was unencumbered at the time of her death. The proceeds of the insurance policy were used to pay decedent's funeral costs, but the estate was not administered for several years. After decedent's death, the Property remained vacant and appellant relocated to Florida. At some point, Steele moved into the Property and began to maintain it.

On September 26, 2005, Steele submitted an Affidavit of Heir to the Camden County Surrogate seeking title to the Property. In the portion of the affidavit requiring the listing of the names, residences, and relationships of all heirs of the decedent, Steele listed only herself. Steele also certified that she had "presented for filing the consent of all of said heirs who have capacity to consent" and was therefore entitled to the Property without Letters of Administration in accordance with N.J.S.A. 3B:10-4.

On September 27, 2005, after her appointment as administratrix, Steele executed a deed, transferring the Property to herself for consideration of $1.00. In 2006, Steele obtained a mortgage on the Property in the amount of $52,000 to finance renovations.

In 2007, Randells returned to New Jersey for a visit and learned that Steele had transferred title to the Property to herself. Randells informed the Camden County Surrogate's Office of her status as an heir. The Surrogate's Office referred Randells to the county prosecutor who questioned Steele and at least one other sibling, Cynthia Shanklin, before declining prosecution. Later that year, Randells moved from Florida back to New Jersey. In February 2008, Steele obtained a second mortgage for $61,500 from Wells Fargo Home Mortgage (Wells Fargo) and satisfied the 2006 mortgage.

On February 17, 2011, Randells filed a complaint seeking to revoke Steele's appointment as administratrix of the estate, to vacate the deed granting Steele sole possession of the Property, to revoke the mortgage placed upon the Property, and to appoint herself as administratrix of the estate in place of Steele. Oral argument was heard on June 17, 2011. Steele claimed the action was barred by Rule 4:85-1, which requires any challenge to probate or to the grant of letters of appointment to be filed within six months, if the aggrieved person is an out-of-state resident.

Randells claimed that she did not file in 2007 as she could not afford counsel. By 2011, she had saved enough money to hire an attorney to file this action. Randells also argued that under Rule 4:50-3, the statute of limitations can be extended if there has been a fraud on the court. The Chancery judge requested supplemental briefs on the Rule 4:50-3 issue.

On September 23, 2011, the Chancery judge dismissed Randell's complaint with prejudice, finding it time-barred. The judge held that Rule 4:85-1 required Randells to file within six months following the issuance of letters of administration. Additionally, the court found that the equitable doctrine of laches applied as Randells "did nothing" after discovering the alleged fraud on the part of Steele. In finding that Steele had been prejudiced by the delay, the judge accepted Steele's claims despite the fact that many were contested by Randells. Finally, the judge found, without elaboration, that Rule 4:50-3 did not extend the statute of limitations.

On appeal, Randells argues that: (1) the judge erred in granting summary judgment; (2) she was entitled to a plenary hearing as to unresolved issues of material fact; (3) the estate remains open as no administrator has ever been appointed; (4) the judge failed to give proper consideration to her arguments under Rule 4:50; (5) the judge misapplied the doctrine of laches; and (6) the judge should have applied the six-year statute of limitations for fraud under N.J.S.A. 2A:14-1.

Steele does not deny that she submitted a false document to the surrogate and does not refute Randells' claim that she first learned of Steele's false submission in 2007, when she returned to New Jersey from Florida.*fn1 We now consider Randells' argument that the trial court erred by failing to give proper consideration to her claim under Rule 4:50. Since Randells was seeking relief under Rule 4:50-1(d) (the judgment or order is void) and Rule 4:50-3 (fraud upon the court), she was required to file her complaint within "a reasonable time under the circumstances." R. 4:85-1. While the judge found that "no statute of limitations applied . . . up until the time [Randells] discovered the fraud[,]" once the fraud was discovered, Randells "had to move forward and comply with Rule 4:85.1 . . . ." ...


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