Losing Party In Will Contest Awarded Over $400,000 In Attorneys Fees As She Had “Reasonable Cause To Contest Will”

This lawsuit was actively litigated for nearly a decade. In this case, a sister filed a lawsuit against her brother regarding the Last Will and Testament of their father.

The parties’ father executed a will in 2012 providing that his son would receive eighty percent of the estate, his daughter would receive ten percent, and his grandchildren would receive ten percent. The 2012 will revoked a 1999 will, in which decedent left his daughter  the entire estate, and a 2010 codicil, in which decedent divided his estate equally between his son and daughter, while naming them both executors.

The daughter filed a lawsuit in 2013. In her four-count complaint, plaintiff alleged that her brother unduly influenced their father; in addition, she alleged that her father lacked testamentary capacity to execute the 2012 will. Along with seeking to invalidate the will, plaintiff sought to remove defendant as executor and demanded a formal accounting of the estate.

Decedent’s son filed an answer on behalf of decedent’s estate denying his sister’s claims.

After years of litigation, the trial court entered judgment finding in favor of defendant son and against the plaintiff daughter. The court held that decedent was competent when he executed the 2012 will and did so without undue influence.

Following the entry of judgment against her, the daughter filed an application seeking an allowance of counsel fees and costs from the estate. Later, the son also filed an application for an award of counsel fees and costs. Even though the daughter ultimately lost the case, the trial court granted the daughter’s fee application in the amount of $439,462.70 but denied her request for costs. The court also granted the son’s application, granting fee allowances in the amount of $667,838.35 and awarding costs in the amount of $24,362.830.

The son appealed, challenging the counsel fee award to his sister. The daughter cross-appealed, challenging the court’s denial of her costs, as well as the underlying judgment rejecting her undue influence claim. The appeals court affirmed the judgment of the trial court, upholding decedent’s will. However, the appeals court reversed the orders awarding counsel fees and costs because the trial court failed to expressly state findings of fact and conclusions of law, as required by the Court Rules, The appeals court remanded the case to the trial court for further fact-finding and analysis.

On remand, the trial court made appropriate findings of fact and conclusions of law, and entered an order awarding $429,662.70 in attorneys fees to the daughter, and $667,838.35 in attorneys fees to the son. The son again appealed, arguing, among other issues, that the trial court erred in awarding counsel fees since his sister’s claims had been found without merit.

The appellate court stated the standard of review as follows: “An allowance of counsel fees ‘is a matter which rests in the sound discretion of the trial court. [We] will not interfere unless the record discloses manifest misuse of the discretion.’ “

With regard to the award of fees and costs to the son, the appeals court found the award to be appropriate, as follows:

[T]he trial court considered and analyzed the attorneys’ certification of services, looking to the nature, extent, and difficulty of services rendered, along with the results obtained, and found that the counsel fee allowances were justified.  [T]he trial court set forth sufficient factual findings and conclusions of law to uphold the counsel fee award. The estate required [the son’s legal counsel’s] legal expertise due to the nature and complexity of the issues raised. [The son] has failed to provide any convincing argument for us to disturb the award … Accordingly, we agree that [the son’s legal counsel is] entitled to compensation for the legal services [] provided in successfully defending decedent’s estate and [the son] in this hard fought will contest.

With regard to the award of attorneys fees to the daughter, the appeals court also held that the award of fees to the daughter was appropriate even though she lost the case, as follows:

Rule 4:42-9(a)(3) provides that in a probate action, “[i]f probate is granted, and it shall appear that the contestant had reasonable cause for contesting the validity of the will or codicil, the court may make an allowance to the proponent and the contestant, to be paid out of the estate.” In accordance with this rule, courts may allow counsel fees to the contestant in a will dispute ‘[e]xcept in a weak or meretricious case.'” [The daughter’s] challenge to the … will was neither weak nor meretricious. … Because the record clearly supports the trial court’s determination that [the daughter] had reasonable cause to contest the will, we discern no basis to disturb the decision to award counsel fees to [the daughter], notwithstanding that her challenge to the will proved unsuccessful.

As a result, the appeals court affirmed the decision of the trial court awarding attorneys fees to the unsuccessful daughter.

The case is annexed here –

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

NJ Will Contests and Probate Litigation