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In re Estate of Defrank

Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division

November 15, 2013


Submitted October 15, 2013

On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Probate Part, Mercer County, Docket No. 09-01870.

Hinkle, Fingles & Prior, P.C., attorneys for appellant Lorraine Rubaltelli (Eileen W. Siegeltuch, of counsel and on the briefs).

Wells & Singer, LLC, attorneys for respondent Diane DiDonato (Jonas Singer, of counsel and on the brief).

Before Judges Parrillo, Harris and Guadagno.



Plaintiff Lorraine Rubaltelli appeals from the April 12, 2012 grant of summary judgment in favor of defendant Diane DiDonato, the executor of the estate of their mother, Aurelia DeFrank, holding that certain joint accounts0 in the names of decedent and defendant are non-probate assets governed by the Multiple-Party Deposit Account Act (MPDA), N.J.S.A. 17:16I-1 to -17, and that upon decedent's death, the accounts passed outside of probate by survivorship to defendant. That same order denied plaintiff's cross-motion for summary judgment claiming the existence of a confidential relationship between decedent and defendant, and that at the time she established the joint accounts, decedent did not intend to create survivorship rights in defendant. For the following reasons, we reverse and remand.

Because this matter comes to us essentially from the motion court's grant of summary judgment in favor of defendant (the prevailing moving party), we view the evidence in the light most favorable to plaintiff. Polzo v. Cnty. of Essex, 209 N.J. 51, 56 n.1 (2012).

The parties are sisters and decedent's only children. Aurelia DeFrank died on August 18, 2009, her husband having predeceased her in 1987. Decedent's last Will dated March 21, 2002, and admitted to probate on December 28, 2009, named defendant as executor of her estate. Like her previous wills, decedent distributed her estate between her daughters and grandchildren, making specific provisions for the two grandchildren and, with the exception of her personal property devised to defendant, dividing the rest of her assets equally between her daughters.

It is estimated that the parties will each inherit approximately $700, 000 from their mother's estate. That amount does not include the monies in twelve multi-party bank accounts titled jointly in the names of Aurelia DeFrank and defendant, totaling $259, 407, which are the subject of this litigation. The funds in these joint accounts, if included in decedent's estate, would constitute about sixteen percent of its total value.

These accounts were created by decedent between 1980 and 2001. Although jointly titled, decedent alone contributed funds to the accounts during her lifetime and all of the account statements were mailed only to her. Decedent paid the taxes on all income earned on the accounts and had the right at any time to withdraw the funds or change the designation.

The accounts were created generally as either checking, savings, money market or certificates of deposit. Of the thirteen bank accounts, it appears decedent primarily used a checking account at Roma Bank to pay bills and for other purposes. Funds from other accounts were at times transferred into the Roma Bank checking account. Sometime after 2000, when decedent's vision began to deteriorate, defendant would write out checks from the Roma account for decedent to sign. According to plaintiff, pursuant to a Power of Attorney (POA) decedent executed in 1991 and again in 2002 naming defendant as her attorney-in-fact, defendant would from time to time from June 2005 up to decedent's death, either assist her mother with banking transactions, or directly withdraw, transfer, deposit or gift funds from the joint accounts.

At the time of decedent's death, plaintiff was living in a separate apartment in her mother's two-family residence, having returned with her son to New Jersey in 1993 from Italy, where she had earned a medical degree and had been living with her husband until their divorce. Plaintiff, however, did not pay rent to her mother. Defendant, on the other hand, settled in the same area as decedent upon her graduation from an out-of-state college, married and had a daughter.

After decedent's Will was probated on December 28, 2009, a dispute arose between the sisters prompting plaintiff to file a complaint in the Chancery Division, Probate Part, to compel an accounting of their mother's estate. As executor of the estate, defendant provided an informal accounting. During the ensuing discovery, plaintiff learned, supposedly for the first time, of the joint bank accounts upon receipt of the estate tax returns, although later in depositions, she states that ...

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