In New Jersey, probate is the legal process during which the will of decedent is verified. After the will is verified, or if there is no will, the decedent’s estate is settled. This involves payment of outstanding bills and distribution of estate assets. A personal representative appointed by the Surrogate’s Court is responsible for managing the estate administration process. N.J. Rev. Stat. § 3B:10-23. For a variety of reasons, disputes occur among parties to a probate proceeding. While some disputes center around the validity of the will, others develop out of questions related to actions of the personal representative. Still other disputes are initiated by creditors seeking to get paid.
While in New Jersey the Surrogate’s Court has jurisdiction over probate matters and is considered the probate court, its jurisdiction is restricted to uncontested matters such as appointing personal representatives and admitting wills to probate. Where there is a dispute over a probate matter, the Superior Court, Probate Part has jurisdiction. N.J. Rev. Stat. § 3B:2-2.
Will Contests in New Jersey
If someone believes that a will is not valid AND they have legal standing, they can initiate a will contest. Those with legal standing include heirs, beneficiaries, and beneficiaries of prior or later wills. The objectant must also have legal grounds for contesting he will such as:
- Lack of testamentary capacity. New Jersey law requires that a testator must have been at least 18 years old and must have been mentally competent when they executed their will. N.J. Rev. Stat. § 3B:3-1. Evidence to the contrary would be grounds for a will contest.
- Undue influence. Another reason for contesting a will is that the testator was the victim of manipulation by someone they trusted such that the manipulator’s will was substituted for the will of the testator. The result would be a will that does not reflect the wishes of the testator and, as a result it would not be valid.
- Improper execution. New Jersey law requires that specific steps must be followed during the execution ceremony of a will. These requirements are to help ensure that the will belongs to the person who wrote it and that there is proof of that after the testator has passed away and is no longer able to speak for themselves. To be valid the will mut be signed by the testator and witnessed by 2 other people who are competent. N.J. Rev. Stat. § 3B:3-2. However, even if the will was not executed properly, the court will admit it if extrinsic evidence supports that it was intended to be the testator’s last will and testament.
- Duress. If the testator is forced to make their will, it would not be enforceable. Duress would be present if the testator was threatened or physically forced to make the will because such a will would not represent the wishes of the testator but of the person applying the force.
If the will contest is successful, the will will not be probated and the law of intestate succession will apply, unless another will is submitted that is determined to be valid. N.J. Rev. Stat. § 3B:5-3
Breach of Fiduciary Duty in New Jersey
Personal representatives are fiduciaries with respect to the estate they are charged with representing and managing. As such, they have a fiduciary duty to the heirs and beneficiaries of the estate. They are required by law to act with honesty, fairly and competently. Fiduciaries must always consider the best interests of the estate before their own interests. When a personal representative breaches their fiduciary duty, the court may remove them, may refuse to authorize payment to then, and may hold them personally liable for losses suffered by the estate.
Examples of fiduciary wrongdoing includes unauthorized self-dealing, failure to safeguard estate assets, failure to follow terms of the will or orders of the court, and negligent investment of estate assets.
Disputes With Creditors in New Jersey
In New Jersey creditors are required to file claims against an estate within 9 months of the decedent’s death. N.J. Rev. Stat. § 3B:22-4. Within 3 months after a creditor files a claim, the personal representative must either allow or dispute it and give notice in writing to the creditor of the decision. The creditor then has 3 months to file a lawsuit to recover on the claim. N.J. Rev. Stat. § 3B:22-8