The decedent, Kathryn Parker Blair, had executed a will bequeathing her estate to her siblings and directing that, if any of her siblings predeceased her, that sibling’s share would pass to his or her surviving children. After the death of the decedent’s brother, the decedent executed a new will omitting the brother’s child (“petitioner”) as a beneficiary.

Petitioner challenged the new will, alleging undue influence and lack of testamentary capacity. In 2014, the chancery court granted summary judgment and dismissed the petitioner’s lawsuit for failure to present adequate evidence to support her claims. Petitioner’s motions for reconsideration and a stay of that dismissal were denied.

The estate then filed a motion against the petitioner for frivolous litigation, seeking sanctions. Petitioner filed a cross-motion, seeking a stay of all relief, reconsideration of the prior orders, and reinstatement of her complaint. Petitioner’s motions were denied, and the court imposed a $750 sanction against her for frivolous litigation. Petitioner appealed.

With respect to the petitioner’s motion to vacate, which was based on her alleged discovery of new evidence, the appellate court found petitioner’s claim to be meritless, and affirmed the chancery court’s denial of the motion.

With respect to the chancery court’s award of sanctions against the petitioner, the Appellate Division found that the statute and rule permitting an award of frivolous litigation sanctions must be strictly construed, because “citizens should have ready access” to the courts, and litigants must generally bear their own legal fees, even in cases of “marginal merit.” The appeals court found that the trial court had “indulgently” allowed the estate additional time to provide a certification supporting its frivolous litigation motion, after the estate failed to meet the original filing deadline.

The appellate court found a more significant issue was that the estate filed a non-compliant certification. The language required by New Jersey Court Rule 1:4-4(b) is:

I certify that the foregoing statements made by me are true. I am aware that if any of the foregoing statements made by me are wilfully false, I am subject to punishment. [Emphasis supplied.]

Instead, the estate’s certification stated,

I certify that the statements made by me are true. If any of the foregoing statements made by my [sic] are willfully false, I may be subject to punishment. [Emphasis supplied.]

The use of the term “may be,” rather than “am,” proved fatal to the estate’s motion: the appellate court rejected the estate’s claim that the language it used was equivalent to the language required under the court rule, or that the difference was a de minimis or technical violation. Because the certification supporting the estate’s motion for sanctions did not include valid certification language, the appeals court vacated the sanction award.

A copy of In re Estate of Blair can be found here – In re Estate of Blair

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