By Fredrick P. Niemann, Esq. of Hanlon Niemann & Wright, a Freehold, NJ Estate Probate Litigation Attorney
One of the most powerful things about a Last Will is that it provides an (almost) absolute disposition of property to heirs or beneficiaries. Upon death there are grounds to contest a will (i.e. undue influence of a testator, lack of mental capacity, etc.) there is some case law that will invalidate certain portions of a person’s Will because it violates what is known as Public Policy. But other than that, Wills that are admitted to probate in the Surrogate’s Court allow an executor to dispose of the decedent’s property. Over the next four blog articles, I will be reviewing a case, In the Matter of the Estate of Kenneth Jameson, in which the Chancery and Appellate Division of New Jersey was asked to set aside a portion of a Will disinherited a child on several different grounds, and why both courts reject each argument.
Here Are the Facts
The decedent is known as Kenneth Jameson. His wife, who predeceased him was Yvonne Jameson. His daughter and the challenger of the Will was Stacy Wolin. Stacy went to college in 1982 and met Marc Wolin, Jewish, whom her parents disapproved of because he was Jewish. She started dating, and she was told she wasn’t welcome at her parents’ home anymore. In April 1987, both parents executed separate Wills, which gave their property to the surviving spouse. When both spouses died, the estate was to then go to the Hospitaller Brothers of St. John of God Community Services to provide special education and rehabilitation to the mentally and physically handicapped, and if Hospitaller did not provide those services, the estate would go to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Camden to do the same. The Will expressly disinherited Stacy, stating that the love given to her was not returned in any way and that Stacy acted with “selfishness, manipulation, cruelty…, abusiveness…, hatefulness and vindictiveness” towards her father.
Flashback, Marc and Stacy had married, and they had three children, which Stacy’s parents never met. It was claimed that Kenneth, who predeceased Yvonne, was heavily influenced by Yvonne and would do anything he could to please her. However, as the court concluded, and we won’t spend any time then, those allegations alone do not constitute undue influence of Yvonne over Kenneth in the procurement of the Will.
Stacy filed a complaint seeking to have the Will thrown out of probate. In this post we will consider the first reason offered to the court why the will should have been rejected – religious discrimination. Stacy stated that she was disinherited because she married a Jewish man and her father rejected the relationship. But the court held that the motivation to disinherit Stacy is irrelevant to the validity of the decision to disinherit her. No matter how the nature of the Will goes against the “principles of justice and humanity” or disinherits an heir due to an unreasonable discriminatory prejudice, courts are bound to uphold the Will if validly entered into, as the Appellate Division stated in In re Liebl and was relied on here.
This decision reminds us that even if there is intent to discriminate in the Will against heirs, the wishes of the testator must be respected. We are reminded that courts do not want to get into a battle over whether a distribution is valid simply because the testator wasn’t motivated by good reasons. It affirms the notion that an owner of the property can do whatever he or she wants with it, provided she doesn’t do so without realizing what she did. The title of this blog comes from a case the Appellate Division quoted from, Den d. Trumbull v. Gibbons, 22 N.J.L. 117, 153 (Sup. Ct. 1849, Yes 1849!). Even an impious man who executes an impious Will is allowed to dispose of this property as he wishes if he does it of sound mind and free from undue influence.
To discuss your NJ Estate Probate Litigation matter, please contact Fredrick P. Niemann, Esq. toll-free at (855) 376-5291 or email him at email@example.com. Please ask us about our video conferencing consultations if you are unable to come to our office.