In Estate of William Strohmenger, 2013 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 2651 (App. Div. Oct. 31, 2013), the decedent left a handwritten will leaving his estate to his minor son, in trust, and nothing to his estranged wife. After his sister sought to admit the holographic will to probate, the estranged wife filed a caveat objecting to probate, claiming that the decedent had not intended to disinherit her.

After the estranged wife’s caveat was rejected and the will admitted to probate, the estranged wife filed a complaint seeking to construe the will to provide for an inheritance to her. That complaint was dismissed.

The probate court also directed, over the estranged wife’s objection, that certain non-probate assets (which designated his son as beneficiary) were to be placed in the trust that was created for the son, in accordance with the will.

On appeal, the Appellate Division agreed that the estranged wife’s complaint was properly dismissed on two grounds: first, it was procedurally barred because of the previously dismissed caveat, based on res judicata, collateral estoppel and the entire controversy doctrine; second, because the will was clear on its face that his estate was to pass in trust for his son, the doctrine of probable intent was not applicable. However, with respect to the non-probate assets for the son, the Appellate Division found that the probate court had overstepped its authority, “even though the trust was created in accordance with [the decedent’s] wishes and a single trust made good sense in the circumstances of this case.” Although it recognized that courts have the power to impose constructive trusts in appropriate cases, the cases permitting such a trust involve assets that would have passed “to an expressly unintended beneficiary unless the equitable powers of the court were employed.” Here, in contrast, the non-probate assets would pass to the estranged wife, as guardian of the son. The Appellate Court reversed on the issue of the trust, concluding that “the Probate Part had good intentions in creating a single, sensible trust, but it did not have the power to do so.”

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