Appellate Division Finds No Suspicious Circumstances Where Son Disinherits Father

In re Laury, Docket No. A-2087-21 (N.J. Super. App. Div. April 25, 2023)

This case centered on a claim of undue influence as to a will and the court finding that a presumption of undue influence did not arise.

Plaintiff Michael Laury, Sr. (“Michael”) filed an action contending that his son’s last will was the product of undue influence by defendant Michelle Laury (“Michelle”), the decedent’s aunt, who was named as executor and sole beneficiary of the will.

Michael Laury, Jr. (“decedent”) was a talented professional dancer who toured nationally and internationally with various groups and entertainers.

Decedent’s mother was not involved in raising him. Instead, decedent was raised by his paternal grandparents.  Michael and Michelle also lived in that home. However, Michael spent much of decedent’s childhood in prison.

In 2019, decedent was diagnosed with cancer. In February of that year, he moved back in with his paternal grandparents. At that time, Michael was incarcerated, and was not released until October 2020, after Michael passed away.

In 2019 and 2020, Michelle lived in Camden County. She testified that she had a close relationship with decedent and visited him often during the last year of his life.

Michelle testified that on May 31, 2020, decedent informed her that he had prepared a will. He asked Michelle to arrange for witnesses and a notary so that he could sign his will the following day.

When Michelle arrived on June 1, 2020, decedent opened the door and let her into the apartment. Michelle saw her mother, whom she believed was high on drugs, passed out on a bed. Decedent told her that his grandfather was not home.

Two witnesses and the notary came to the apartment later in the afternoon of June 1, 2020.  The witnesses both testified that when they arrived, decedent was alert and sitting up in bed. One witness explained that decedent recognized him and they “laughed,” “joked,” and “talked about dancing.” Laury at *4.  The notary arrived shortly after the two witnesses. All three testified that decedent appeared to be alert and that he understood what he was doing.

Decedent produced a document he identified as his will and signed it in the presence of the two witnesses and the notary. The notary asked the two witnesses to sign a logbook certifying that they had witnessed decedent sign his will. The notary also signed the will and gave decedent the original.

Michelle testified that she did not know she was the sole beneficiary until after the will had been signed.

On June 11, 2020, decedent passed away. Michelle arranged for decedent’s funeral and memorial services. She also took care of decedent’s debts and obligations, including arranging for the care of his dog.

In July 2020, Michelle submitted decedent’s will to be probated. The assets of decedent’s estate were estimated to be worth approximately $130,000.

In October 2020, Michael filed a verified complaint challenging the validity of decedent’s will. Following discovery, the court conducted a two-day trial.   The court then issued a judgment and written opinion finding that the notary, two witnesses, and Michelle were all credible witnesses. Although the court believed some of Michael’s testimony, the court did not credit Michael’s testimony challenging the legitimacy of the will and found that his testimony in that regard was not supported by any evidence. The court also found that Michael’s testimony attacking the will was contradicted by the four credible witnesses.

The court also found no confidential relationship between Michelle and decedent and there had not been any suspicious circumstances surrounding the execution of the will.  Instead, the court found that there was no evidence to rebut the presumption that decedent was of sound mind when he executed his will. Therefore, the court dismissed Michael’s contest of the will with prejudice.

Michael appealed, arguing the trial court failed to properly weigh the evidence and failed to shift the burden on undue influence.

The Appellate Division disagreed and affirmed the trial court’s rulings.  Initially, the appeals court summarized the standard to find undue influence:

Our Supreme Court has explained that “undue influence is a mental, moral, or physical exertion of a kind and quality that destroys the free will of the testator by preventing that person from following the dictates of his or her own mind as it relates to the disposition of assets[.]” In re Estate of Stockdale, 196 N.J. 275, 302-03 (2008) (citing Haynes v. First Nat’l State Bank, 87 N.J. 163, 176 (1981)). Undue influence “denotes conduct that causes the testator to accept the ‘dominance and influence of another’ rather than follow his or her own wishes.” Id. at 303 (quoting Haynes, 87 N.J. at 176). The undue influence must exist at the time that the will was executed.

Laury at * 7.

The Appellate Division then addressed the standards for a presumption of undue influence: if the will benefits one who stood in a confidential relationship to the testator and if there are additional suspicious circumstances, the burden shifts to the party who stood in that relationship to the testator.

The Appellate Division noted that the trial judge court found that decedent and Michelle shared an “aunt and nephew relationship” but not a confidential relationship. The appellate court also found that there was nothing suspicious about the timing or circumstances of decedent’s execution of his will. The judge noted that decedent was battling cancer and appropriately made estate plans. For those reasons, the Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s rulings.