I am proud to announce our firm’s resounding victory in the New Jersey Appellate Division defeating an appeal to reverse the trial court’s decision enforcing our client’s settlement agreement in a multi million dollar probate case.
In the underlying action, our client filed a complaint in the Bergen County Probate Court challenging the validity of his father’s (the “Decedent'”) last will & testament (the “Will”) and several inter vivos property transfers that were effectuated by the Decedent’s brother (the “Appellant”). The Decedent’s father died at Hackensack Medical Center leaving a Will that he purportedly executed two days earlier on October 1, 2013 while he lay on his deathbed. Under the Will, the Appellant inherited a majority of the Decedent’s estate. On the same day the Will was executed the Decedent also purportedly executed four (4) Quitclaim Deeds transferring the Decedent’s four most valuable properties to the Appellant. The Appellant drafted and/or prepared the Will and the Quitclaim Deeds. In the absence of the disputed Will and Quitclaim Deeds, Seth, Decedent’s only child, stood to inherit 100% of Decedent’s estate as the Decedent had no prior will.
On or about March 24, 2014, our client filed a Third-Party Complaint contesting the validity of the Will, the Quitclaim Deeds and other property transfers from Decedent’s estate effectuated by the Appellant on the basis of lack of testamentary capacity and undue influence. What proceeded was a hotly contested matter spanning over a year involving extensive discovery practice, numerous depositions and court appearances, motion practice, the retention of expert witnesses and the parties’ expenditure of hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees. Trial was scheduled to begin in this matter on June 8, 2015.
On the eve of trial, the parties and counsel appeared before the court for a settlement conference. After hours of negotiations, the parties agreed to global settlement agreement and placed the settlement terms on the record before the trial judge. As noted in the Appellate Division’s opinion, the Appellant was thoroughly voir dired by the trial Judge and was asked to confirm that he understood the terms of the settlement, that he was entering into the agreement freely and voluntarily and that the settlement was fair and equitable. In response to these questions the Appellant unequivocally stated: “Judge, I agree with everything you’ve said. . . . Your Honor, I’m in total agreement.”
The Appellant later filed a motion to set-aside the agreement arguing that he was under pressure during the settlement negotiations. The judge denied the Appellant’s motion and stated in his written opinion that there was no evidence of any fraud or other compelling circumstances to warrant vacation of the settlement, nor was there any evidence that the terms and conditions of the settlement were unclear or ambiguous. The Appellant appealed the trial court’s decision.
On appeal, the Appellant argued our client’s claim, that Decedent could not convey property by deed and execute a valid will, was barred by the doctrines of waiver, estoppel and unclean hands; the settlement agreement was unconscionable because he cannot survive financially as Decedent had intended; the distribution of Decedent’s property was grossly unfair; and he could not cope with the distress and shock he experienced when the matter was negotiated and settled. The Appellate Division rightfully concluded that the Appellant’s arguments were without sufficient merit to warrant discussion in a written opinion, and affirmed substantially for the thoughtful reasons expressed by the trial judge.
The takeaway from this appeal is that having settler’s remorse is not a valid reason for vacating a settlement.