The Timeliness of Estate-Related Litigation

In re Estate of Thomas, 431 N.J. Super. 22 (App. Div. 2013).  Rule 4:85-1 establishes a short time period (four months for New Jersey residents and six months for non-residents, subject to a “reasonable time” exception under Rule 4:50-1) within which anyone who seeks to challenge the probate of a will or the issuance of letters testamentary or of administration, guardianship, or trusteeship must file suit.  In this case, the decedent’s daughter filed a complaint that sought a declaratory judgment that she was the decedent’s child and sole heir, as well as seeking to vacate letters of administration issued to the decedent’s sole surviving brother after he had waited a full year from the decedent’s death to apply for the letters.  The daughter had not received notice of the issuance of those letters since the brother had claimed in his application for those letters that the decedent had no children.

The daughter, a non-resident, filed her case four months after the six-month deadline of Rule 4:85-1.  The Probate Part found her complaint untimely.  On appeal, the Appellate Division reversed in an opinion by Judge Fisher.

Judge Fisher analyzed the timeliness of the two different components of the case independently.  The requested declaratory judgment was not subject to Rule 4:85-1, since the plain terms of that rule limit it to the issuance of letters of administration and the like.  After tracing a rather tortuous path through several potentially applicable statutes, Judge Fisher concluded that the statutes did not apply either, and that the timeliness issue was governed by the doctrine of laches.  He found that laches did not bar the action.  The suit was not unduly delayed and there was no prejudice to the decedent’s brother, especially since the brother had not “move[d] with any great alacrity,” having waited one year after the decdent’s death to obtain the letters of administration.

The issue of the validity of the letters of administration was, however, governed by Rule 4:85-1.  But that rule allows complaints filed within a reasonable time under Rule 4:50-1 to be considered timely.  In analyzing the timeliness issue, Judge Fisher emphasized that the daughter’s application should have been viewed liberally.  The Probate Part had not done that.  Given the daughter’s proofs, the judge was required to have assumed that the daughter was in fact the decedent’s daughter, that she had not received notice of the issuance of the letters of administration, and that there was no prejudice to the brother.  Instead, the Probate Part improperly weighed the evidence and found the daughter’s proofs, especially on the issue of whether the decedent was her father, to be “inadequate and self-serving.”

The proper standard was that of Rule 4:50-1(f), which looks at “the interest of justice” and is “as expansive as the need to achieve equity and justice.”  It is a “truly fact-sensitive matter.”  On these facts, there was enough to allow the daughter’s case to proceed.

The daughter also sought to have her father’s body disinterred (a concept that Judge Fisher found applicable even though the body rested in a mausoleum rather than underground).  The Probate Part had denied that too.  After discussing the law of disinterment, which is disfavored, in some detail, Judge Fisher concluded that the issue should be remanded for fuller consideration at an evidentiary hearing. 

Given his background as a Chancery judge, Judge Fisher is often the author of decisions regarding the powers and limitations of Chancery.  This opinion is another in that line of cases, and is a good reference for other cases in this area of the law.