The decedent, John F. Piazza, died a widower in 2012, survived by three children: Barbara Piazza (“Barbara”), John H. Piazza (“John”), and Debra Elly Shaefer (“Debra”). His will appointed Barbara as executrix, and left his residuary estate to his three children equally. However, there was a purported codicil to his will, which disinherited Debra.

Following the decedent’s death, Barbara allegedly made repairs to the decedent’s property in Hopatcong and paid her brother John to transfer his portion of that property to her. Barbara and John also conveyed title to the decedent’s New York property to themselves as “sole heirs,” and then sold it for over $900,000.

Thereafter, more than two years after their father’s death, Barbara probated his will. Even though she had a copy of the codicil, Barbara presented the will without the codicil. She listed herself and John as next of kin, omitting any reference to Debra. She was appointed executrix in 2015.

Three months later, Debra (through her court-appointed guardian) filed a complaint (the “Chancery action”) against Barbara and John, seeking partition of the Hopatcong property, and seeking an accounting of the estate. This case resulted in a bench trial in Debra’s favor: the court found that Barbara had not been truthful by omitting Debra as next of kin on the probate petition, and that Barbara had the codicil but had failed to submit it for probate. The court refused to allow Barbara to submit the codicil into evidence, finding that it was “way too late to submit a challenge to … the probate,” and that “I’m not sure it could be a challenge… since plaintiff, herself, was the one that introduced the will.” The court issued a final judgment requiring sale of the Hopatcong property and division of the proceeds among the three children; and ordered that Barbara and John’s portion of the proceeds be placed in escrow pending resolution of a New York lawsuit brought by Debra’s guardian, regarding the New York property. Barbara did not appeal that final judgment.

Instead, she filed a new Order to Show Cause (the “Probate action”), seeking to amend the probate to include the codicil. She also sought to vacate the earlier Chancery action judgment under Rule 4:50-1, because the judge had refused to allow the codicil into evidence. In February 2017, the court denied her Order to Show Cause, concluding that it was a “collateral attack” on the prior final judgment. Barbara appealed this February 2017 order.

On appeal, the Appellate Division noted that Barbara was appealing the Probate action denial of her request to amend probate, and that she had failed to appeal the Chancery action judgment requiring sale and apportionment of the Hopatcong property.

The appeals court agreed with the lower court that Barbara’s attempt to amend probate was a “collateral attack” on the Chancery judgment, and that the doctrine of collateral estoppel bars a party from relitigating an issue determined in a prior action between the same parties. To bar a claim based on collateral estoppel, the following must be shown:

(1) the issue to be precluded is identical to the issue decided in the prior proceeding; (2) the issue was actually litigated in the prior proceeding; (3) the court in the prior proceeding issued a final judgment on the merits; (4) the determination of the issue was essential to the prior judgment; and (5) the party against whom the doctrine is asserted was a party to or in privity with a party to the earlier proceeding.

Under this definition, the appellate court concluded that collateral estoppel barred Barbara’s claims: the codicil in issue was the same in both proceedings. Barbara litigated the codicil in the first proceeding, in an attempt to bar Debra from an interest in the Hopatcong property. The court’s rejection of the codicil was essential to its judgment, because otherwise, Debra would have been disinherited. Barbara was a party in both proceedings.

The appeals court also agreed with the trial court that Barbara’s argument under Rule 4:50-1 (“Relief from Judgment or Order”) was unavailing: because there was no newly discovered evidence, Barbara was untruthful in omitting Debra as next of kin, Barbara had possession of the codicil but did not present it in a timely manner, and Barbara had not been defrauded, equity did not require relief under that rule.

The Chancery Court was affirmed.

The case is attached here – In the Matter of the Estate of Piazza

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