Court Affirms Counsel Fee Award For An Amount Substantially Less Than The Sums Requested

In the Matter of the Estate of James E. Mellodge, Deceased, 2017 N.J. Super. Unpub. 2466, No. A-4161-15T3 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. Sept. 26, 2017).

The Appellate Division assessed a trial court’s counsel fee awards from an estate.

In the first phase of the litigation, the decedent’s oldest daughter asserted that undue influence caused decedent’s designation of his youngest daughter, Joyce, as a beneficiary of POD accounts totaling approximately $139,000. After a two-day trial, the judge rejected that claim.

Joyce then filed a verified complaint, which led to an order to show cause requiring, on the return date, that any interested parties show cause why Joyce’s final accounting should not be approved and why the estate should not bear certain fees incurred in the prior undue-influence suit. On the return date, the judge heard testimony from Joyce and the estate’s prior attorney.  The judge later accepted additional submissions and documents from the parties.

The focus became the counsel fees incurred by each sister. Both firms sought awards of approximately $200,000 each.  The probate assets totaled $650,000.

The judge determined that these requests of the sisters’ respective law firms were “breathtakingly excessive” due to their “scorched-earth” approach. Id. at *2.  The trial judge explained that, if permitted, a full award of their fees would consume over half the probate estate.  The court also noted that certain of the fees paid from the estate benefitted Joyce personally, regarding the POD accounts.  Accordingly, the judge awarded substantially less than the sums requested.  Because counsel for the estate and Joyce had already been paid from the estate more than the award by the court, the firm and Joyce had to reimburse the estate.

Joyce and the law firm appealed.

The Appellate Division affirmed:

The judge was imbued with considerable discretion in ascertaining the appropriate fee awards. The written decision reveals that the judge thoroughly assessed the nature of the claims and the parties’ “scorched-earth” efforts in seeking vindication of their positions; the experienced judge then employed his considerable discretion in fixing a reasonable fee in these circumstances.  We agree with the judge that this case presented no particular difficulties other than those generated by an “antagonism” between [the sisters] that ventured well “beyond sibling rivalry.”


Id. at *3-4.