Appeals Court Rules Will Beneficiary Must Accept Cash, Not In-Kind Distribution, and Awards Legal Fees to Executor

In the Matter of the Estate of Anna Fabics involved multiple lawsuits, motions, and other pleadings filed by the decedent’s son Joseph against Joseph’s brother Laszlo. Their mother’s will left her residuary estate to her two sons equally, and appointed Laszlo as executor. The will directed the executor to sell all property of the estate without prior approval, upon terms that the executor deemed appropriate. The decedent’s home was the main asset.

Joseph wished to purchase the home, and also claimed that there had been property in the home that Laszlo had stolen. Joseph sued for an order barring Laszlo from transferring or selling any estate property and removing Laszlo as executor.

In April 2015, Hon. Douglas K. Wolfson barred Laszlo from disposing of estate property, pending a hearing. In May 2015, Joseph filed a second complaint seeking to vacate probate of the will, alleging that the will had been stolen because the probated copy had the name “Joseph” written on it.

Pending the hearing date, Judge Wolfson ordered that Joseph be permitted to enter the home and inventory the property therein. Joseph conducted an inventory. Laszlo gave Joseph the chance to make an offer on any property he wished to purchase from the home, to avoid having the property sold. Although Joseph listed the items he wanted, he never made a valid offer.

A hearing was schedule for a Monday in June 2015. The Friday before the hearing, Joseph filed a motion on short notice seeking to compel discovery of unpaid bills of the estate. Judge Wolfson denied the motion on two bases: the motion was untimely and the discovery sought was irrelevant to the issues at trial.

A two-day bench trial was conducted. At the conclusion, Judge Wolfson dismissed both of Joseph’s complaints with prejudice. He also dismissed Joseph’s request for an accounting as premature, since Laszlo was not yet required to produce an accounting; and discharged the lis pendens Joseph had filed against the house. Judge Wolfson issued a written opinion, in which he determined that Joseph failed to prove his allegations against Laszlo. Instead, the judge found that Laszlo had properly carried out his duties as executor. Judge Wolfson noted that, as executor, Laszlo under no duty to consult with Joseph, but was free to make unilateral decisions. With regard to Joseph’s claim that probate should be vacated because the will was stolen, the judge found that no evidence was presented to support this claim.

Following the ruling dismissing both of his complaints, Joseph filed a flurry of pleadings: a motion for reconsideration; a Law Division petition for discovery; another lis pendens against the home; and a subpoena on Laszlo. Judge Wolfson denied the reconsideration motion; dismissed the petition for discovery; discharged the lis pendens; quashed the subpoena; ordered Joseph to pay counsel fees; and barred Joseph from filing further actions in the Law Division or Chancery Division without leave of court.

Joseph then filed an appeal of those orders, along with yet another lis pendens against the house. The chancery judge also dismissed that lis pendens; barred Joseph from filing further lis pendens without leave of court; and ordered Joseph to pay additional counsel fees.

The Appellate Division affirmed all of Judge Wolfson’s orders. It recognized a court of equity’s broad and adaptable powers to achieve a “conscientious judgment directed by law and reason and looking to a just result.” The appellate court found that Joseph’s arguments on appeal lacked merit. Among other things, it found that, because the will had not authorized in-kind distributions, the judge’s determination that Joseph must accept a cash distribution from the estate was appropriate. With regard to the denial of Joseph’s motion for discovery, the reviewing court agreed with Judge Wolfson that the court  “was not required to compel discovery of irrelevant evidence.” As to counsel fees, the Appellate Division noted that, following Judge Wolfson’s final judgment and his discharge of the original lis pendens, Joseph ignored those rulings by filing a second and third lis pendens and a petition for discovery based on the already-dismissed claims. These actions required the estate to respond, and to incur counsel fees. In short, Joseph’s improper conduct warranted the imposition of counsel fees.

A copy of In the Matter of the Estate of Anna Fabics can be found here – In the Matter of the Estate of Anna Fabics

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