Will Contest Based on Decedent’s Ability to Speak English Rejected

In re Estate of Bardizbanian, Docket No. A-3370-21 (N.J. Super. App. Div. Mar. 5, 2024)

Siran Bardizbanian (“Decedent”) died on March 9, 2021.  Decedent’s daughter, Maggie, sought to reject Decedent’s November 6, 2000 will (“2000 Will”), which disinherited her.  Decedent’s son, Gary, was a proponent of the 2000 Will, of which he was the named Executor and primary beneficiary.

Decedent and her husband, Toros, moved to the United States from Syria in the 1970’s and, in 1991, opened a business.  Gary left college to work there.

Decedent and Toros used the same attorney, John McGlade (“McGlade”), to handle the family’s business dealings and an assortment of other legal matters, including estate planning.  McGlade prepared wills for both Decedent and Toros in 1994.  It was undisputed that Toros’s 1994 will was properly witnessed and notarized.  Toros’s 1994 will expressly disinherited Maggie.  Decedent also disinherited Maggie in her 1994 will.  Gary was not involved with any aspect of the creation or execution of the 1994 wills.

Toros died on May 12, 2000.  Thereafter, Decedent met with McGlade to revisit her estate plan, and stated that she wanted to leave everything to Gary and omit Maggie.  She eventually executed the 2000 Will.  Once again, Gary was not involved with any part of the creation or execution of the 2000 Will.  Siran’s friend (“Arous”) accompanied Decedent to execute this document.

After Decedent’s death on March 9, 2021, Gary located her 1994 and 2000 wills, as well as a handwritten letter to one of Decedent’s grandsons stating that she was going to deprive Maggie of an inheritance.  The letter was written in Armenian, and Gary had it translated to English.

Decedent’s 1994 and 2000 wills were nearly identical.  Both disinherited Maggie.

The primary dispute between Maggie and Gary concerned Decedent’s ability to communicate in English.  Maggie submitted certifications from herself, her children, Decedent’s niece, and a friend of Decedent’s primarily focused on Decedent’s preference for speaking Armenian and choosing to not speak English in their presence.  Maggie averred that (1) both the 1994 and 2000 wills were fake because wills are not part of Armenian culture; (2) Gary exerted undue influence over Decedent; and (3) Decedent could not possibly have understood what she was signing because she did not learn any English during her lifetime.  Maggie also provided select medical records to support her claims, but they did not demonstrate any mental or physical decline such that Decedent would have been unable to execute a will.

Gary submitted certifications from himself, Decedent’s neighbors, her brother (“Alex”), and an extended family member.  Gary’s certification reaffirmed that he was completely uninvolved with the creation and execution of both the 1994 and 2000 wills.  Gary also pointed out that Maggie did not raise these concerns of potential incapacity and undue influence when Toros died in 2000.

The other certifications in support of Gary’s position averred that Decedent spoke and understood English because she lived in the United States for over 40 years.  Arous, the friend who accompanied Decedent to the execution of the 2000 Will, testified that Decedent was able to communicate in English with McGlade.  Decedent’s brother, Alex, certified that, while Decedent was more comfortable speaking Armenian, she could speak English effectively when necessary.  Alex also testified as to what a doting son Gary was, to refute Maggie’s claims of undue influence.

The trial court found no evidence of a confidential relationship between Gary and Decedent and did not recognize any suspicious circumstances to create a presumption of undue influence.  Similarly, the trial court found the record devoid of evidence of lack of testamentary capacity and, rather, found that Decedent made her donative intent clear, which does not require a precise understanding of every clause in the will.  Maggie also never challenged Toros’s 1994 will, which was nearly identical to Decedent’s 1994 will, because Toros did not speak English.  Finally, the trial court rejected Maggie’s assertions that Decedent’s signature was not her own, based on McGlade’s testimony and that of the other witnesses to the 2000 Will.  Gary’s motion for summary judgment was granted.

The Appellate Division agreed with the trial court’s assessments in its entirety in a per curiam opinion.  The Appellate Division determined that the trial court had ample evidence to support Decedent’s donative intent to disinherit Maggie in the 2000 Will and that she sufficiently understood English.  Further, Maggie failed to satisfy her burden of proof that Decedent lacked testamentary capacity by clear and convincing evidence and provided zero evidence of undue influence by Gary.  Accordingly, the Appellate Division affirmed the granting of Gary’s motion for summary judgment.