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Legal Memorandum: Claim for Attorney's Fees or Punitive Damages

Issue: May a claim for attorney’s fees or punitive damages be brought in an undue influence case in New Jersey?

Area of Law: Estate Planning & Probate, Litigation & Procedure
Keywords: Claim for attorney's fees; Undue influence case
Jurisdiction: New Jersey
Cited Cases: 823 A.2d 9; 176 N.J. 282
Cited Statutes: Punitive Damages Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:15-5.9—5.17.
Date: 08/01/2008

The New Jersey Supreme Court addressed the issue of the availability of attorney’s fees and punitive damages in the recent case of In Re Stockdale’s Estate, ___ A.2d _____,  (N.J. July 22, 2008).  In that case, the court held that actions involving claims of undue influence “are most often resolved through the equitable remedies available in the Probate Part.”  A party who has engaged in undue influence may, however, be liable for punitive damages.  The court added that “the circumstances in which a punitive award is permitted are limited.”  The circumstances in which punitive damages are appropriate are those cases in which the party claiming undue influence may bring a tort-based claim, rather than the usual type of equitable claim against the estate.  Those cases are those

in which the actor is not entitled to take from the estate by inheritance or through commissions, and thus in which an accounting and the surcharge remedy will be inadequate to restore the estate to its proper balance . . .

Allegations of undue influence between parties who are the “natural objects of the testator’s bounty” generally do not involve a tort-based claim.  Id. 

That is to say, if, for example, two siblings dispute whether one, by undue influence, has obtained an otherwise out-of-the-ordinary inheritance, the assertion of undue influence is simply the framework for the Probate Part decision about which will is to be admitted to probate and which is to be rejected. In that context, and […]

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