Phil Kirchner, shareholder and former chair of Flaster Greenberg’s Litigation Department, and litigation attorney Eric Clendening, prevailed recently in an estate dispute, convincing the New Jersey trial and appellate courts to dismiss undue influence and lack of capacity claims against their client, Amelia Willson. The result saved the client millions of dollars in assets from her late husband’s estate, and resulted in her being appointed executor of the estate.
The client’s deceased husband had changed his estate plan shortly before his death. The new plan had left all of his non-probate assets, worth several million dollars, to his wife, Amelia, and named her executor of his probate estate. The new plan also reduced his bequest to his daughter, Amelia's stepdaughter, from several million dollars to $200,000 of his probate estate. Despite that she had no facts to support her claims, the stepdaughter sued the client in probate court to undo her father’s last will and set aside the beneficiary designations for his non-probate assets. The suit accused the client of unduly influencing her husband to change his estate plan and claimed he had lacked the capacity to change his estate plan.
In the summer of 2016, having already fired her first lawyer, the client came to Phil to see if she wanted to hire him to defend her in the estate dispute. She had fired her former lawyer because he had advised her to settle against her wishes and had attempted to settle the case behind her back, which would have required her to pay at least $1.5 million to the stepdaughter. Phil reviewed the case documents, and in stark contrast to the client’s first attorney, assured her that he thought the case against her had no merit and was winnable. He also told her that he thought summary judgment in her favor was possible, which would save her the need for a full-blown trial. With that confidence, the client decided to stand her ground. With invaluable assistance and support from Eric, Phil never deviated from his plan.
After enduring over three years of discovery, the other side’s endless delay tactics, and countless meritless discovery motions, Phil and Eric finally had the opportunity to present their summary judgment motion to the court. The New Jersey Superior Court chancery judge in Mercer County accepted their arguments in full and awarded them summary judgment, dismissing all claims against the client with prejudice and appointing her executor of her late husband’s estate.
Prevailing on their motion for summary judgment was a significant victory for Phil and Eric for several reasons. First, it saved the client the significant costs, time, and uncertainty of enduring a trial, which would have lasted several weeks and cost several thousand dollars. Second, New Jersey state courts are notoriously difficult places to get summary judgment, in part, at least, because trial judges know they will almost never be reversed for denying a summary judgment motion. Finally, securing a summary judgment is even more difficult in undue influence cases, due to the very low burden of proof for the claimant to defeat the motion. Despite these obstacles, Phil and Eric never wavered in their plan, and their persistence paid off with a victory.
Following the trial court decision granting summary judgment, the stepdaughter appealed that order to the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, and Phil and Eric opposed the appeal. In a unanimous decision, the Appellate Division affirmed the trial court. The plaintiff then filed a Petition for Certification to the New Jersey Supreme Court asking the court to accept her appeal, which Phil and Eric again opposed. The Supreme Court denied the Petition, thereby ending the case.
The client summed up her feelings about the ordeal, her ultimate vindication, and the skill and passion that Phil and Eric demonstrated throughout their representation of her:
“When I reflect on this lawsuit and the part Phil and Eric played, I think of how carefully they listened to me and understood the implications of what I was saying, how skilled they were in litigation, and how decent they were as people. They never wavered in their belief of my innocence and they never once, even in my darkest hours, thought we didn’t have an excellent shot at a summary judgment. There is no doubt in my mind that their convictions drove their confidence in the courtroom. And the rest is history.”
- Amelia Willson