NJ Appellate Division Vacated Award of Counsel Fees

In the Matter of the Estate of Helen Hauke, 2018 WL 580259, No. A-4103-15T3  (N.J. App. Div. Jan. 29, 2018).

 In this dispute over the distribution of the parties’ mother’s estate, the son, appea


ring pro se, appealed from the Chancery Division’s award of counsel fees in the amount of $76,068.71 to the attorney for his brothers.  The brothers sued son alleging undue influence, unjust enrichment, conversion and damage to mother’s residence.  After two days of trial, counsel gave the judge a proposed settlement and consent judgment that included a provision that the estate would pay the legal fees of all parties.  The brothers’ attorney submitted a certification of services to the court and the son challenged the bill asserting attorney had already received payment of the fee that he claimed from the estate.

The trial court awarded the entire amount of fees and costs requested by the attorney, without explaining the reasons for rejecting the son’s challenge to the amount.

On appeal, the son argued that the trial court failed to find that his brothers refused to abide by the terms of their settlement and it abused its discretion in awarding the fees in the amount requested by his brothers’ counsel.

The Appellate Division vacated the award of fees and remanded the matter for reconsideration as the trial court did not address the challenge raised by the son nor issue a statement as required by Rule 1:7-4.  The appeals court noted that although the parties settled the case by agreeing to resolve any dispute about counsel fees, not surprising those attempts failed and the trial court was obligated to resolve the dispute by considering and ruling upon the merits of the disagreement.

Accordingly, the appellate court remanded to the trial court the dispute over counsel fees, so that the trial court could reconsider the fee application and issue a decision setting forth its reasons.