The Appellate Division affirmed a summary judgment ruling by a trial court in a probate lawsuit involving disputed issues of material fact relating to alleged incapacity and undue influence. In the Matter of the Estate of Tornaben, New Jersey Superior Court, App. Div., Docket No. A-5181-14T4 (Sept. 27, 2016).

The Essex County Surrogate admitted the December 7, 2011 will of decedent Nella Tornaben to probate. The Surrogate also issued letters testamentary to Nella’s nephew and her accountant who were appointed co-executors of the estate. The will distributed Nella’s estate among six beneficiaries, including the nephew.

Plaintiffs resided in Italy and were the children of Nella’s late-brother. In 2013, the Italian relatives commenced an action challenging the will, from which they were excluded. Plaintiffs alleged that Nella lacked the requisite testamentary capacity to make the will. They also contended that the will was the product of undue influence exerted upon Nella by her nephew.

Following the close of discovery, defendants moved for summary judgment. In addressing plaintiffs’ undue influence claim, the trial court found that plaintiffs produced sufficient evidence to support a finding of a confidential relationship and suspicious circumstances, shifting the burden of proof to the will’s proponent. Nonetheless, the judge concluded that defendants had successfully rebutted the presumption of undue influence. Next, the court rejected plaintiffs’ claim that Nella lacked testamentary capacity in 2011 when she executed the wills. Specifically, the Court ruled that the certifications presented by each side revealed that Nella was fully cognizant of the nature and location of her assets, suffering from mild dementia at the time she signed her will.  In addition, the court found that the hospital records failed to establish her lack of capacity by clear and convincing evidence.  Accordingly, the Court entered summary judgment in favor of defendants.

Plaintiffs appealed. On appeal, plaintiffs renewed their claims that decedent lacked testamentary capacity and was under undue influence when she executed her will. They also argued that there were disputed issues of material fact as to decedent’s competency and susceptibility to undue influence that rendered an award of summary judgment inappropriate.

The appellate court began by acknowledging that summary judgment ordinarily should not be granted where an action depends on a determination of a person’s state of mind, and cited case law recognizing that “a court should hesitate to grant summary judgment when it must resolve questions of intent and mental capacity,” and that “factual issues related to alleged undue influence are not susceptible to resolution on motion for summary judgment.” Nevertheless, the appeals court held that a court is not precluded from granting summary judgment, notwithstanding the existence of issues involving state of mind in the case, if the court determines there is no genuine issue of material fact.:

[W]hen the evidence is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law, the trial court should not hesitate to grant summary judgment.

The Appellate Division agreed with the trial court’s finding that the certifications were trustworthy.  Also, the appeals court found nothing in the record to indicate that the nephew overcame Nella’s free will and caused her to do something she did not want to do. As a result, the Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the complaint on summary judgment and found the court did not abuse its discretion in entering summary judgment in a case with issues involving the state of mind of the decedent.

The case is annexed here – Matter of the Estate of Tornaben

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