Complaint Dismissed in Will Contest After Plaintiff Fails to Appear

In re Estate of Liu, No. A-5063-18T1, 2020 WL 3527328 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. June 30, 2020).

After James Liu failed to appear before the court, the Appellate Division affirmed the Chancery Division’s order dismissing his complaint contesting his father’s will.

Decedent, Thomas Liu, died in December 2018 and was survived by his two children, James and Julia Liu.  Before his death, Thomas lived with Julia, who cared for him in his old age.  Thomas executed a will in 2013, leaving 30% of his estate to James, and the remaining 70% to Julia.

In 2013, James filed for guardianship of his father, arguing that Thomas was unable to manage his own affairs.  The Chancery Division dismissed the complaint after an expert testified that Thomas was “able to communicate and mentally competent.”  The trial court also ordered James to pay both the expert’s and the guardian ad litem’s fees because the guardianship suit was unnecessary.  James did not pay the ordered fees, even after the court reduced the balance.  The court subsequently issued an order to show cause, requiring James to appear in court and explain the unpaid fees.  When James failed to appear, the court issued a warrant for his arrest.

Following the guardianship action, Thomas revised his will to prevent James from inheriting, leaving his entire estate to Julia.

After Thomas died, James filed a complaint in February 2019 contesting Thomas’s testamentary capacity and claiming that Julia exerted undue influence in drafting the new will.  The unpaid fees and warrant for his arrest were still outstanding.

The trial court judge issued an order to show cause, requiring all the parties to appear in court on the specified date.  James again failed to appear in court, despite the trial judge’s clear orders.  The court thus dismissed James’s complaint with prejudice for failure to appear pursuant to Rule 1:2-4.

James appealed the trial court’s ruling, arguing that the court abused its discretion in dismissing the complaint for James’s failure to appear.

The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s dismissal.  Citing Rule 1:2-4, the court stated that it is within trial judge’s discretion to dismiss a complaint when a party fails to appear pursuant to court order, and is warranted where that failure demonstrates “‘a deliberate and contumacious disregard of the court’s authority.’”  Gonzales v.  Safe & Sound Sec.  Corp., 158 N.J.  100, 115 (2005).  Because James’s record showed that he ignored multiple court orders—failing to pay court ordered fees; failing to appear in court after the guardianship action, and then again after initiating the will contest; and failing to respond appropriately to his arrest warrant—the Appellate Division concluded that the trial court’s dismissal of his complaint was appropriate.