6 Years After Probate Judge Ordered Them To Pay Legal Fees And They Unsuccessfully Appealed, Defendants Try Again – And Fail

Defendant Rosemary Walsh was the executor of the estate of Irene Halpecka, and had been agent under Ms. Halpecka’s power of attorney. Along with the plaintiffs, Walsh was also named as a residuary beneficiary of the estate. Following Halpecka’s death, plaintiffs sued Walsh, alleging breach of fiduciary duty and undue influence in her actions as power of attorney and executor. Plaintiffs also sued Walsh’s husband, alleging that he was complicit in Walsh’s misdeeds and that he benefited from those misdeeds.

After a trial, the judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. The judge found that Walsh had transferred the decedent’s assets to herself, thus depleting the estate (and the plaintiffs’ share of the estate), and that her misdeeds occurred both before and after the decedent’s death. The court also found Walsh’s husband was complicit in, and unjustly enriched by, Walsh’s misconduct. In addition to a damages award, the court’s February 18, 2010 judgment ordered the defendants to pay the plaintiffs’ counsel fees of more than $100,000.

The defendants appealed and the Appellate Division affirmed that fee judgment, finding that “there was clear and convincing evidence of undue influence amounting to fraud” and that the award,

fell squarely within the holding in Niles [176 N.J. 282 (2003)] that when … an executor or trustee reaps a substantial economic or financial benefit from undue influence, the fiduciary may be assessed counsel fees incurred by plaintiffs … in litigation to restore the estate’s assets to what they would have been had the undue influence not occurred….

(I blogged about that initial Appellate Division decision here). The defendants then petitioned for certification to the New Jersey Supreme Court. They claimed that the Niles holding did not extend to reimbursement of legal fees for assets transferred during the decedent’s lifetime; that the Niles ruling was limited to undue influence that results in the wrongful creation of estate documents, as opposed to misuse of fiduciary status; and that the plaintiffs were not representing the estate but were merely third-party beneficiaries of the estate. The Supreme Court denied certification in 2014.

Six years later, the defendants filed a motion to vacate the fee judgment, claiming that the 2016 case of In re Folcher, 224 N.J. 496 (2016) limited the Niles ruling to cases where an estate was depleted by a person who owed a fiduciary duty to estate beneficiaries, not just a duty to the decedent, and that the legal fees related to the defendant’s actions under the power of attorney should not have been permitted. That motion was denied, with the judge finding that the alleged change in the law did not justify the relief sought, and that vacating the fee award after six years would unduly burden the plaintiffs. The defendants again appealed to the Appellate Division.

The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s denial of the defendants’ motion.

It agreed with the trial court’s analysis and noted “the important policy that litigation must have an end.” It also noted that the Folcher decision was not to be applied retroactively, and that the case was distinguishable because the Folcher defendant had not been the POA or the executor of the estate, and owed no fiduciary duty to the decedent, the estate, or the estate’s beneficiary. It concluded that,

Knowing that Halpecka designated plaintiffs as one-third beneficiaries of her estate, Walsh used her power of attorney to make inter vivos transfers to herself and [her husband] that depleted the estate, nullified Halpecka’s testamentary intent, and deprived plaintiffs of their rightful bequests. Under the egregious circumstances of this case, plaintiffs were entitled to an award of counsel fees against defendants under the Niles exception.

A copy of the In re Estate of Halpecka case can be found here – In re Estate of Halpecka

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