In the Matter of the Estate of Carol A. Lee Rankins, No. A-2686-16T3, 2018 WL 3096991 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. June 25, 2018)

In the Matter of the Estate of Carol A. Lee Rankins, No. A-2686-16T3, 2018 WL 3096991 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. June 25, 2018).

This matter concerned whether Clyde Rankins, the surviving spouse of Carol A. Lee Rankins (“ the decedent”) was entitled to the proceeds from the sale of the home allegedly owned jointly by Rankins and the decedent through tenancy by the entirety.

Decedent’s daughter and executrix of the estate, Ursula Jones, argued that the marriage between her mother and Rankins was legally invalid because the signature of the witness for the marriage certificate was forged. Id.  As a result, the executrix  asserted that one-half (1/2) of the sale proceeds should be placed in a constructive trust for the beneficiaries under the decedent’s Last Will and Testament.

In 2015, eight months after the death of the decedent, the executrix filed a verified complaint and order to show cause to probate the estate and vacate the letters of administration previously given to Rankins. Id.  Rankins responded to the complaint with an answer and counterclaim for all rights to title and interest in the marital home Rankins shared with the decedent

The executrix’s response to Rankin’s answer and counterclaim questioned the legal validity of the marriage between her mother and Rankins because she alleged that she did not witness the marriage and thus, her signature was forged.

The court admitted the will to probate; allowed Rankins to sell the marital home with the net proceeds to be held in his attorney’s trust account but enjoined himfrom dissipating any portion of the estate until further court order; and required the parties to participate in mediation.

After an unsuccessful mediation, the executrix amended her complaint to include a claim of unjust enrichment and proceeded with a summary judgment motion to impose a constructive trust on decedent’s estate.

The trial court granted the motion for summary judgment in favor of Rankins. Id.  The lower court reasoned that pursuant to either the annulment statute, N.J.S.A. 2A:34-1, or the alleged forged signature claim, there was insufficient evidence to support the executrix’s contention that the marriage was invalid.

The Appellate Division, however, reversed and remanded the lower court’s finding that the marriage was legally invalid because the marriage certificate requirements pursuant to N.J.S.A. 37: 1-17 were not satisfied since the witness’s signature was forged. IAlso, the forged signature allegation was a “factual dispute as to the consummation of their marriage,” and therefore, summary judgment was not appropriate. Id. at *3.

As to the claim for unjust enrichment, the trial court dismissed the executrix’s claim that a constructive trust should be enforced on her mother’s share of the sale proceeds for the property as a means to prevent Rankins from receiving any share of the proceeds pursuant to a right under tenancy by the entirety.

However, the Appellate Division noted that since the marriage was not legally valid, the unjust enrichment issue should not have been dismissed. The court further reasoned that even if the marriage was legal, a two-prong test should have been satisfied to determine whether a constructive test was appropriate, and the lower court did not set forth any findings to determine whether either prong of the test had been met.

Therefore, the Appellate Division reversed the judgment of the lower court and remanded the matter to the lower court, leaving it to the court’s discretion to determine whether discovery should be permitted.