NJ Appellate Court Holds That Mere Friction Or Hostility Between A Beneficiary And A Trustee or Executrix Is Not Sufficient Grounds For Removal Of A Fiduciary

In an unpublished opinion, the Superior Court, Appellate Division, reversed a trial court’s judgment summarily removing the executrix of an estate and appointing an independent third party administrtor based upon a finding that the executrix and beneficiary did not get along. The appellate court held that friction between the executrix and the beneficiary was insufficient cause for removal without a showing that the relationship will or is likely to interfere materially with the administration of the estate or proof that the friction arose out of the trustee’s behavior. in-the-matter-of-the-estate-of-john-h-hnat-deceased, Docket No. A-4672-07T2 (App. Div. January 29, 2009)

The decedent appointed Patricia A. Sweeney as executrix of his estate in his will. The decedent and Sweeney, a quadriplegic, lived together for 15 years. The plaintiff was the decedent’s son, who had little contact with the decedent during the last years of his life and who had a strained relationship with Sweeney. Plaintiff filed a complaint seeking Sweeney’s removal based solely on the grounds that she was unable to serve due to her medical condition and hospitalizations. At a hearing, the trial judge summarily removed Sweeney as executrix and appointed an independent third party as administrator of the estate, concluding that “it would be inappropriate for the parties who cannot cooperate with one another to proceed further. It would inevitably entail further avoidable counsel fees, time, energy and expense.”

The appellate court reversed, holding that the removal of a trustee or executor appointed by will should be granted sparingly and with great caution. The appellate division said that courts should be reluctant to remove a fiduciary appointed by will unless there is “clear and definite proof of fraud, gross carelessness or indifference.”

With regard to the hostility or friction between the executrix and the beneficiary, the Court held that:

The general rule is that mere friction or hostility between a beneficiary and a trustee is not necessarily a sufficient ground for removal. The mere fact that a beneficiary disagrees with a fiduciary’s proper exercise of discretionary powers, or is resentful of the fiduciary’s authority, or is antagonized by his personality, is not sufficient cause for his removal. Generally, in order for friction or hostility between the beneficiary and trustee to form the basis for removal, there must be a demonstration that the relationship will interfere materially with the administration of the trust or is likely to do so. There also must be proof that the friction or hostility arose out of the trustee’s behavior.

Since there was no evidence whatsoever that Sweeney caused any friction or hostility between the parties, the appellate court reversed and directed the trial court to reinstate Sweeney as the executrix of the estate.