Adult Child Uses Senior Divorce to Contest Estranged Parent’s Last Will and Testament

Plaintiff, Emmaline O’Hara, and defendant, John B. O’Hara, Jr., were married in 1955. They had two children, Robin, who is deceased, and Kevin, from whom John was estranged. John acquired approximately $6 million in assets during the marriage.

In 2012, Emmaline filed for divorce. At that time, Emmaline was 80 years old, and had been married to John for 57 years.  John believed that Emmaline was incompetent, and that the divorce complaint was a sham, orchestrated by Kevin in order to have his father’s assets transferred to his mother so he would have control over them. The Family Part judge appointed a guardian ad litem for Emmaline. Emmaline was evaluated by a psychologist, who concluded that she had severe cognitive deficits, was suffering from dementia, and lacked the capacity to govern herself, manage her affairs, or understand the divorce proceedings. John filed an answer and counterclaim, asking the Court to appoint him as Emmaline’s guardian. John also filed a third-party complaint against Kevin, asserting claims of conspiracy, fraud, abuse of process, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

In 2014, John executed a Last Will and Testament. John’s Will created marital trusts that entitled Emmaline to income from the trusts during her lifetime, but left Emmaline with no property interest in the marital assets. John also named his granddaughter as remainder beneficiary in his Will, named his three nephews as contingent beneficiaries, and specifically disinherited Kevin.

John died unexpectedly in 2014, 3 months after he created the new Will.

Several months later, Emmaline filed a motion to stay dismissal of the matrimonial matter. The trial judge permitted Emmaline to file an amended complaint joining John’s estate as a defendant and asserting a claim for a constructive trust. The judge found that the Will did not guarantee Emmaline all of the rights she would have been afforded under the alimony and equitable distribution statutes. The judge concluded that “the matter involve[d] the division of [John’s] [E]state and whether [Emmaline] receives [the] equitable share she would have received had [John] not died.”

The estate filed a motion to dismiss the amended complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. The estate argued that a constructive trust was not proper because Emmaline was not disinherited under John’s Will. However, the trial judge denied the estate’s motion, concluding that “[w]ithout allowing the matrimonial matter to proceed to determine the value of the parties’ assets and what is available per equitable distribution, it will never be clear whether [Emmaline] received everything under the trust to which she is entitled, via equitable distribution.” The estate filed a motion for leave to appeal, which was granted.

On appeal, the estate again argued that its motion to dismiss should have been granted because Emmaline was not disinherited. However, the Appellate Division affirmed the judgment of the trial court, ruling that:

Equitable remedies, including constructive trusts, may be imposed by a court to prevent unjust enrichment… [O]nce Emmaline filed her complaint for divorce, she was entitled to equitable distribution of marital assets. John’s death did not diminish that right. Thus, the court must determine the value of the marital assets, the appropriate equitable distribution, and whether the Estate would be unjustly enriched if it retained full interest in the marital assets. At this stage of the litigation, … we must accept as true … [Emmaline’s] allegations that … the Will effectively disinherited her and extinguished her interest in the marital assets, thus unjustly enriching the Estate. Without discovery and a hearing, it cannot be determined whether a constructive trust is the appropriate equitable remedy.

The case is annexed here – O’Hara v. O’Hara and Estate of O’Hara

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