Appellate Division Finds 45-Day Limitation To Appeal Not Triggered As Final Accounting And Distribution Remained To Be Submitted

In the Matter of the Estate of Jones, 2016 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 2173 (App. Div. Oct. 3, 2016).

Defendant Perry Jones, nephew of decedent Hermeles Jones and prior administrator and a beneficiary of decedent’s estate, appealed from the order of the probate court that approved the final accounting and distribution of assets submitted by the court-appointed substitute administrator, Loryn Lawson.  Jones and his siblings objected to the final accounting and distribution and refused to execute refunding bonds.  Jones also appealed the order of the probate court that denied Perry’s cross-motion challenging various distributions and reimbursements and claiming breach of fiduciary duty in the administration of the estate.

The probate court determined that Jones’s requests had already been adjudicated during the decade-long litigation of the estate.  Jones filed several motions and petitions attacking Lawson’s actions, including eight complaints or petitions.  The trial was conducted by Judge Thomas W. Cavanagh, Jr. over numerous dates.  The judge placed factual findings on the record over six days and issued an order dated January 9, 2012.

The probate court ordered Lawson to meet with Jones to accumulate “any and all information necessary to provide the [c]ourt with a comprehensive and full accounting and final analysis regarding all the issues raised in the pleadings regarding the estate matters.”

On June 25, 2013, Judge Cavanagh placed his findings and conclusions of law on the record.  Ultimately, the court accepted Lawson’s recommendations for final payment and distribution “with limited exceptions.”  The court found the estate’s current assets totaled $291,938.61 and liabilities to creditors equaled $40,154.85.  In addition, the court granted certain reimbursement requests by the beneficiaries and finalized claims made against Jones.  Moreover, the court fixed counsel fees payable by the estate incurred on behalf of Jones and Lawson.  Finally, the probate court ordered any remaining funds distributed “in accordance with N.J.S.A. 3B:5-4.”

Thereafter, Jones moved to be relieved from the provisions of the probate court’s order and a different motion judge was assigned to review the matter upon Judge Cavanagh’s retirement.  The court’s order dated January 24, 2014, denied all 19 requests submitted by Jones.

Lawson then prepared and distributed a final accounting and a refunding bond to each beneficiary.  Yet, Jones and his siblings declined to execute refunding bonds.  Consequently, Lawson petitioned for approval of the proposed final accounting and sought an order permitting the determined disbursements and allowing her to deposit remaining funds into court to close the estate.  In response, Jones again raised the 19 issues previously denied.  The motion judge permitted oral argument and found Jones’s arguments were the same ones that Judge Cavanagh had adjudicated.

The motion judge also found Jones’s cross-motion presented issues that were addressed following trial, which precluded her review.  Specifically, the motion judge characterized the cross-motion as a request for reconsideration of Judge Cavanagh’s final decision as well as her order dated January 24, 2014, denying the 19 requests submitted by Jones.  Thus, the judge concluded that Jones’s request was untimely and, therefore denied the cross-motion.

Further, the motion judge found no error in Lawson’s accounting, which incorporated the conclusions in prior orders.  Thus, the court approved the final accounting, as submitted and ordered Lawson issue distribution of the amounts stated in her accounting.  The order also denied the cross-motion in its entirety.

On appeal, Jones contended that the probate court should have subjected Lawson to examination in an evidentiary hearing, and further argued that approval of the final estate accounting was erroneous.  In affirming the orders of the probate court, the appeals court rejected Jones’s arguments.  The Appellate Division found that Jones’s cross-motion simply re-raised issues rejected by the probate court in a prior motion, and that his attempt to essentially file a motion for reconsideration was untimely.

Specifically, the appeals court found that Jones failed to abide by the procedural time limit and substantive requirements of R. 4:49-2.  The appeals court noted that it was undisputed that the cross-motion merely replicated the earlier motion, which had been reviewed and rejected on January 24, 2014.

Notably, the Appellate Division found that Judge Cavanagh’s June 28, 2013 order was not a “final order,” requiring an appeal be filed within 45 days following its entry, and thus disagreed with the motion judge’s characterization suggesting appellate review was foreclosed.  The appeals court reasoned that the approval of Lawson’s final accounting and distribution of the estate assets remained to be submitted before the estate could be closed.

Nevertheless, the appellate court affirmed the denial of Jones’s cross-motion as initially untimely in the probate court.  The court noted that the motion resulting in the January 24, 2014 order was filed more than six months following the order after trial, yet R. 4:49-2 requires that any challenge to the order be presented within 20 days of that date.  The appeals court found that nothing explained the delay in challenging the trial order and thus affirmed the denial of Jones’s motion as untimely.

Moreover, the court rejected Jones’s challenge to the estate accounting, finding that the proposed distributions had been fully litigated over numerous motions and hearings, each of which Jones participated in and had an opportunity to present his argument and any competing evidence.  The appeals court further found that Lawson’s accounting simply formalized results previously ordered by the probate court, such that a line-by-line review was not necessary.

Finally, the appellate court rejected Jones’s challenges suggesting Lawson breached her fiduciary duty and misapplied estate assets, as there was no basis for the court to conclude Judge Cavanagh’s findings were unsupported by the evidence of record.