On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Cape May County, Docket No. C-39-10.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Fisher, P.J.A.D.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted November 27, 2012 -
Before Judges Fisher, Alvarez and St. John.
The opinion of the court was delivered by FISHER, P.J.A.D.
On December 19, 2006, Jack M. Murray executed a Will, prepared by defendant William E. Spiegle, III, Esq., leaving his estate to family members or trusts for the benefit of family members. On February 2, 2007, less than two months after executing the Will, Murray appeared at Union State Bank in Naples, Florida, and opened an account, which directed the payment of the balance, upon Murray's death, to a designated beneficiary. Desirous of naming a trust as the beneficiary, Murray was dissuaded by a bank representative because the trust documents were not at hand. Consequently, Murray named "William Spiegle Atty" as the "pay-on-death" beneficiary. When Murray died on December 19, 2007, the account held $143,151.26, approximately one-third of his entire estate.
While marshaling the estate's assets, plaintiff Dan Stephenson, the estate's executor, discovered the Union State account. When inquiries were made, Union State expressed a need to reach out to defendant. Plaintiff learned nothing more until May 12, 2010, when defendant wrote to advise he was the account's sole beneficiary. Defendant conveyed these further thoughts about the account:
I have no idea why this account was established. It was established approximately six weeks after [Murray] executed his will in my office, which leads me to believe the intent of this account was clearly to take it outside the estate itself. I have no idea what motivated this action. I was completely unaware that this had occurred. I had not seen nor talked with Jack since the day he left my office December 16, 2006. I can only surmise that something happened on his way to Florida or after he got to Florida for him to take this action.
. . . I have looked at this situation from various points of view seeking to fathom the intent of this account. I come back to the only conclusion that I can draw, which is -- for whatever reason -- he wanted me to have this money.
As a result of defendant's decision to retain the funds, plaintiff commenced this action. He alleged Murray was not competent or that he had made a mistake and, also, that the terms of the account were a product of defendant's undue influence.
Defendant unsuccessfully moved for summary judgment, and the matter proceeded to a trial.
At the conclusion of a bench trial, the Chancery judge rendered thorough findings regarding the account's creation. Viewing the equitable theory that would support relief as somewhat unique, and finding most other potential theories inapplicable, the judge concluded it would be unconscionable to withhold the ...