Absent Undue Influence, Appellate Division Upholds Disclaimer

In the Matter of the Estate of Warren A. Theckston, Docket No. A-3111-20 (N.J. Ct. App. Div. September 26, 2022)

Warren A. Theckston (“Warren”) died intestate on November 26, 2019.  Warren was survived by his four children, James, Jacqueline, Dorothy, and Theresa.  James was estranged from his father for approximately fifteen (15) years at the time of Warren’s death.

In the weeks prior to his death, Warren deeded three (3) properties to his daughter, Jacqueline, with the expectation that the funds would also be made available for the care of Dorothy and Theresa.  Jacqueline and the notary observed that the deeds improperly listed the notary as the preparer of the deeds.  Unsure that the deeds would be accepted for recording with this mistake, James, Dorothy, and Theresa signed disclaimers on December 7, 2019, after Warren’s death.  The deeds were accepted and recorded on December 12, 2019.

On July 10, 2021, James filed a complaint and order to show cause alleging: (1) his disclaimer was forged and obtained by fraud in the inducement; (2) the deeds were secured with undue influence; and (3) Warren did not have capacity to sign the deeds and was unduly influenced into doing so.  Jacqueline filed a motion for summary judgment that was granted with prejudice.  James filed this appeal pro se.

The Appellate Division found James failed to present a question of material fact and that all of his claims were meritless.  Rather, the Appellate Division found that James only provided “self-serving statements” to support his claims of fraud. Namely, James alleged he was fraudulently induced into signing the disclaimer because he did not have an attorney review it and he had consumed alcoholic beverages before signing.  These reasons were found insufficient to survive a motion for summary judgment.  Turning to the validity of the deeds, the Appellate Division remarked that the record was “devoid of any facts establishing Warren lacked mental capacity,” such as medical records or testimony from those at the signing.  Finally, the Appellate Division affirmed that James failed to meet his burden to show undue influence by Jacqueline in effecting the transfer of the deeds.  The court emphasized that the existence of a familial relationship, without more, is insufficient to show undue influence.  Thus, the Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s decision.