NJ Appellate Court Rules That Awarding Attorneys Fees To The Wrongdoer In An Undue Influence Case Is An "Abuse Of Discretion"

In the recent case of Rossius v. Krasheninnikoff, plaintiff filed a complaint in which she alleged undue influence by the defendant upon the decedent after she discovered that defendant had obtained letters testamentary from the Ocean County Surrogate’s Court by falsely claiming that he was kin to the decedent. After a three day trial, the court found that defendant improperly influenced decedent to make defendant the sole beneficiary named in the decedent’s will. The court determined that defendant had engaged in the tort of undue influence and awarded the entire estate to plaintiff.

Thereafter, defendant’s counsel filed an application for fees relating to his representation of defendant in this case and a variety of other matters.  Plaintiff opposed the application. The Court granted defendant’s application for fees, and an order awarding fees was entered. Plaintiff’s subsequent application for reconsideration was denied.

Plaintiff filed an appeal, contending that the trial court erred in awarding attorneys fees because defendant was found to have exercised undue influence over decedent. The appellate court reversed, holding that, under the facts of the case, it was an abuse of discretion for the trial court to award attorneys fees to defendant:

In a probate action, allowance may be made for legal fees out of decedent’s estate even if probate is refused.  Where probate is granted and there is reasonable cause for contesting the validity of the will, an allowance may be made to both the proponent and the contestant.  But where the wrongful conduct of one party triggers otherwise unnecessary litigation, no allowance of counsel fees will be made to the wrongdoer.  In fact, in some circumstances, counsel fees for the innocent prevailing party may be charged against that individual.  This prevents the wrongdoer, an individual who commits the tort of undue influence, for example, to benefit from his wrongdoing to any extent and protects the estate from being diminished by the litigation engendered by the wrongdoing.  In fact, “undue influence represents such an egregious intentional tort that it establishes a basis for punitive damages in a common law cause of action.”  Thus not only will a wrongdoer be denied payment of his or her legal fees out of a fund in court, he or she may be liable for counsel fees or punitive damages, to the prevailing party.  [citations omitted]

The case is annexed here – Rossius v. Krasheninnikoff