Christine D. Cenaffra (decedent) had six children, two of whom were the parties in this lawsuit. Diane Cenaffra was the plaintiff, and her sister Patricia Stollenmaier was the defendant.

Decedent died in 2015. Her Last Will and Testament named defendant as the executrix. Defendant also was her mother’s power of attorney (POA). Decedent resided with defendant from 2008 until her death.

Decedent’s house was sold in April 2015, netting $229,543.72 for the Estate. Plaintiff received a $10,000 check from the Estate in December 2015. When she did not receive any other payments, she began to inquire through her attorney about the Estate’s finances.

Plaintiff filed an Order to Show Cause and Verified Complaint in July 2016, seeking to enjoin defendant, as executrix, from distributing assets of the Estate and requested a verified accounting of all financial activity for the period when defendant was POA and as executrix. The trial court ordered defendant to provide a verified accounting in sixty days and restrained her from distributing any assets outside the ordinary course of business.

Defendant did not provide the accounting. As a result, the court ordered defendant’s removed as executrix and appointed plaintiff as administrator in defendant’s place. Thereafter, plaintiff reviewed the estate’s inheritance tax return which showed a gross value of $319,368 for the Estate, but the Estate only had $6886 in its account.

The court conducted a two-day bench trial. At trial, plaintiff challenged four payments made by defendant, arguing that they were not legitimate expenses of the estate, including a $40,000 for “home repair” even though no building permits were obtained and over $110,000 defendant paid to herself for her services as executrix along with a $27,000 check for a “gift.” Defendant was present at the trial but did not testify, invoking her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

At the conclusion of the bench trial, the trial court determined defendant breached her fiduciary duty as POA and executrix because she had “no lawful authority to perform these actions or to act on behalf of the Estate at this time.” In 2018, the court entered a judgment against defendant for $200,422 in favor of plaintiff.

Defendant appealed. On appeal, defendant argued that the trial court’s findings were not supported by adequate, substantial and credible evidence. She contended that the appeals court should correct the amount of the judgment.

The appellate court found no basis to overturn the trial court’s judgment, finding that plaintiff submitted substantial credible evidence to prove that the challenged transactions were not legitimate estate expenses. However, the appeals court remanded the calculation of amount of damages to the trial court, finding that “[a]lthough the [trial] court had substantial credible evidence to support [its ruling], it did not explain how it arrived at the actual amount of the judgment [against defendant for $200,422.]”

.The case is attached here –

Download (PDF, 105KB)

For additional information concerning probate litigation and will contests, visit:

NJ Will Contests and Probate Litigation

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *