This appeal concerned the trial court’s ruling that a 2013 deed was valid. The appellants, who were appointed co-executors of the decedent’s will, claimed that the deed was the product of undue influence.

The decedent had owned a condominium and, in 2012, she executed a deed conveying that interest to herself and her niece, as tenants in common. In 2013, she signed a “correction deed” conveying the condominium to herself and her niece as joint tenants with right a survivorship. The “correction deed” erroneously identified the decedent as the only grantor, but was signed by the decedent and the niece.

In 2016, a guardianship action was filed on behalf of the decedent by the Hudson County Protective Services, and a temporary guardian was appointed; during the guardianship proceedings, the decedent died.

After her death, the decedent’s niece filed a caveat against her aunt’s will, along with a verified complaint seeking appointment of a temporary administrator, and seeking a declaration that the 2013 deed was valid. The named executors of the decedent’s will filed an answer and counterclaim, but their answer did not allege undue influence with respect to the deed.

The named executors also filed a complaint seeking removal of the caveat, and seeking probate of the will.

The trial court issued orders to show cause on the complaints, both of which stated that the court would entertain argument, but not testimony, on the return date.  At the time of the return date, the executors had not conducted discovery. When the judge asked their attorney whether he wanted the judge to decide the case based on the pleadings and arguments, he answered yes, although later in the oral argument, he stated that there might be more information needed for the judge to make a decision regarding the validity of the deed.

Following oral argument, the judge issued an order removing the caveat, admitting the will, and declaring the 2013 deed valid. The executors appealed with respect to the ruling that the deed was valid, arguing that the court erred in not conducting a plenary hearing on the issue of undue influence.

On appeal, the Appellate Division agreed with the executors. It found that the executors’ attorney “seemingly agreed” that the trial court could decide the issue without testimony, but “decline[d] to hold that appellants waived the right to conduct discovery or a plenary hearing on the issue of undue influence.” Although noting that the executors’ counsel’s argument regarding undue influence had been “minimal” on the order to show cause return date, the appellate court found that there was a sufficient record before the trial court, including the pleadings and reports from the guardianship action, to find that there had been a confidential relationship and suspicious circumstances surrounding the 2013 deed execution. The court concluded,

We fully recognize that the court might have thought that appellants did not seek to undertake discovery… on the issue of undue influence given counsel’s comments during oral argument. However, we decline to deprive litigants of their day in court based on what seems to have been a misunderstanding caused by counsel’s failure to effectively communicate their request for discovery and a plenary hearing.

Because it could not determine, based on the trial judge’s opinions, whether the court had considered the undue influence claim, the appeals court vacated the lower court’s order declaring the deed to be valid. The case was remanded.

A copy of In the Matter of the Estate of Suesser can be found here – IMO Estate of Mildred Suesser

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