In the Matter of the Estate of Pauline Donner, No. A-2279-16T1, 2018 WL 3059692 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. June 21, 2018).

In the Matter of the Estate of Pauline Donner, No. A-2279-16T1, 2018 WL 3059692 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. June 21, 2018).

Pauline Donner (“the decedent”) died on December 3, 2007. Her children, Christopher Donner (“Donner”) and Debra Morrison (“Morrison”), were the co-executors of her estate.  In her will, the decedent bequeathed her stock shares in the family business, Debcris Commercial Warehousing, Inc., to Donner.  Disputing the ownership of Debcris and the administration of the estate, Morrison filed a complaint against Donner, Network Relocation Services, Inc., and Chris Donner LLC.  In March 2009, the court discharged Donner and Morrison as co-executors and appointed an attorney  as administrator C.T.A.  In April 2011, the court appointed another attorney as a special fiscal agent for Debcris.

In January 2013, the parties executed a settlement agreement to effectuate the sale of a property in Lumberton that included lots owned by Donner and Debcris. The settlement provided, in part, an estimated $35,000 in attorney and administration fees to the administrator C.T.A. and included as an addendum that Donner would receive $5,000 from the administrator C.T.A. in consideration of his release of all claims against her.  Later that month, the court dismissed the matter but did not discharge the administrator C.T.A. or the special fiscal agent.  The parties subsequently raised claims against the administrator C.T.A. for breach of fiduciary duty.

In September 2014, the court authorized the fiscal agent to sell the Lumberton property and dissolve Debrcis. In January 2015, the court granted the fiscal agent’s attorney fees to be paid from Debcris’s account and approved an accounting of Debcris.  The Lumberton property was sold in October 2014, and in August 2015 Apell sent the proceeds to the administrator C.T.A. in a check payable to the estate.

In March 2016, the administrator C.T.A. requested approval of the final account of the estate and sought administrator commissions and attorney fees and costs, subtracting the amount she was paid under the settlement agreement. Donner and Morrison objected to her request for administrator commissions and attorney fees and costs, arguing that the settlement capped that amount at $35,000.  On July 29, 2016 the court approved the final account of the estate and granted the administrator C.T.A. administrator commissions.  Later, the court entered an order approving the fiscal agent’s final accounting of Debcris and discharged the fiscal agent.  Donner appealed.

In its analysis, the court cited Rule 2:4-1, which mandates that appeals from final judgments be filed within 45 days unless, on a showing of good cause and the absence of prejudice, the court extends the time for 30 days. The court also cited N.J.S.A. § 3B:17-8, which states that judgments concerning accounts are res adjudicata to all exceptions that could have been taken to the account, constitute an approval of the correctness and propriety of the account, and exonerate and discharge the fiduciary from all claims, with limited exceptions.  Finally, the court also held that once the time for appeal passes, absent fraud or mistake, a judgment approving an administrator’s final account is conclusive as to all issues that were or could have been raised, and creates in the parties a vested right in the judgment.

Accordingly, the Appellate Division found Donner’s appeal untimely because the final account was approved in a July 29, 2016, order, affording Donner time to appeal only until December 30, 2016. Although the Chancery Division’s last order was entered on December 22, 2016, which would have allowed Donner more time to appeal, the court reasoned that because that order related only to Debcirs and to the fiscal agent’s discharge, it did not affect the final account of the estate.  The court dismissed the appeal.