The decedent was killed in a motor vehicle accident. After his death, his father was appointed as personal representative of his estate, to administer the non-probate estate and to prosecute a wrongful death action.

Plaintiff was the biological mother of the decedent’s two sons. She never married the decedent, and she raised the children on her own until a later marriage. The sons’ birth certificates did not list the decedent as their father, who was incarcerated at the time of their births.

Plaintiff had not been given notice of the decedent’s father’s application to be appointed representative of the estate. When plaintiff learned of the decedent’s death, she had the DNA testing performed, which confirmed that the children were the decedent’s. She then became appointed as the legal guardian of the children’s property, and filed a verified complaint to have the decedent’s father removed, and have herself appointed, as administrator.

The chancery judge conducted oral argument and denied the plaintiff’s request, concluding that the decedent’s father and the plaintiff had equal rights to serve as representative.

Plaintiff appealed the dismissal to the Appellate Division, which reversed the trial court after finding that the plaintiff should have been substituted as representative.

The Appellate Division based its decision on its interpretation of New Jersey statutes and case law. Pursuant to N.J.S.A. 3B:10-2, if a person dies intestate without a surviving spouse/domestic partner, administration is to be granted to the remaining heirs of the intestate.  Case law has held that administration is to be granted to the next of kin, and that “the underlying principle is that administration shall be committed to those who are the ultimate or residuary beneficiaries; that is, to those to whom the residue of the estate will go, when administration is complete.” It continued that, because the right of administration grows out of the right of distribution,

the statutory mandate entitling next of kin to administer is limited to those next of kin who are heirs of the estate, for such is the true construction of the statutory words “next of kin.”

Distribution of an intestate estate is governed by N.J.S.A. 3B:5-4, which provides that, if there is no surviving spouse/domestic partner, the entire intestate estate passes to “the decedent’s descendants by representation….”

Because the decedent’s two sons were entitled to the intestate estate, and their mother, as guardian, had the right as trustee to the children’s property, as well as the right to file litigation on the children’s behalf, she was the proper administrator.

The appeals court also noted that, where administration is granted without giving notice to interested parties, whether intentionally or by mistake, the proceeding is to be reopened and, if the omitted party has a superior right to administration, the prior appointment will be revoked.

In sum, although it found no basis to disqualify the decedent’s father based on his conduct, the Appellate Division nevertheless concluded that the decedent’s children were his next of kin and heirs to his estate, and that their mother, in her capacity as their legal guardian, was entitled to appointment as administrator.

A copy of In the Matter the Estate of Siracusa can be found here – In the Matter of the Estate of Jerry Anthony Siracusa, III

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