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Wills and Financial Exploitation

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Question: What happens when someone not related to a person who's passed away and who is not a beneficiary to her will improperly influences her to change its terms?

Answer: In the case of In re Stockdale, the New Jersey Supreme Court answered the question of whether it's proper for a court to award punitive damages against someone "who has engaged in undue influence in the creation of a will ..."

The case involved the estate of Madeleine Stockdale and, in particular, her large home in Spring Lake, NJ. In her 1998 will, prepared by her attorney, William Soons, she directed that her home should be sold on her death and that the proceeds should be included in her estate. The primary beneficiary was the Spring Lake First Aid Squad.

A man named Ronald Sollitto expressed interest in purchasing Mrs. Stockdale's house. During a time in which she was in declining health, Sollitto and his lawyer, Michael Casale, pressured Mrs. Stockdale to sell her house on unfair terms and convinced her to create a new will naming Casale, the lawyer, as the sole beneficiary. When she passed, Casale presented the will to the county surrogate, but the beneficiary of her 1998 will, the First Aid Squad, challenged its legitimacy. The trial court agreed with the challenge, refused to probate the new will and ordered Sollitto and Casale to pay the attorney's fees of the true beneficiary as punitive damages.

On appeal, the Supreme Court noted that punitive damages are typically improper when an estate dispute involves different beneficiaries and there is a claim that one of them unduly influenced the person who passed away, to gain a greater share of the inheritance.

The correct remedy under those circumstances, the high court said, generally involves reducing the inheritance or statutory commissions the beneficiary otherwise would have gotten from the estate by any amount obtained through undue influence. But when those accused of undue influence do not have any lawful inheritance or commission rights to reduce, a punitive damage award is a viable possibility.

Ultimately, the Supreme Court decided that since Sollitto and Casale had unduly influenced Mrs. Stockdale, they could be held liable for punitive damages because they were unrelated to her and did not possess any lawful inheritance or commission rights. In addition, though, the Court's decision basically eliminated punitive damage awards in most estate disputes, where a beneficiary is accused of undue influence.

Although Mrs. Stockdale's estate was allowed to potentially recover punitive damages, both the trial court and Appellate Division, after the Supreme Court's decision, decided that the First Aid Squad did not establish the requirements for a punitive damage award.

Mrs. Stockdale had no family except for two nephews to whom she had no real connection. Close family members of elderly and ill relatives can and should inquire about suspected exploitation by other family members or non-members, as long as there's none that can be attributed to them. With the collaboration of Kieu-Nhi Le, Rutgers School of Law Newark candidate for a JD degree in May 2016. She is the Managing Business Editor of the Rutgers Computer and Technology Law Journal.

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