Lawsuits over the validity of a Last Will and Testament have become a common form of litigation around the country, as well as in the State of New Jersey. Preparing an estate plan is something that is necessary and something that everyone should take care of while they are in an appropriate physical and mental state. However, there are no rules as to when estate planning must be done. Some individuals plan their estates well in advance. Others wait until the last minute. Some make sure that they frequently update their estate plans. Others ignore what has to be done. The result of late planning is often litigation.
In addition to the act of getting estate planning done, many other factors play into the fact that so many probate estates end up in litigation. As families grow away from each other, natural suspicions arise. Did someone influence the preparation of the Will? Was the maker of the Will competent? How were the assets divided? How long was the marriage? The questions are virtually endless.
In a recent case decided in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey, the Federal District had to decide whether there was appropriate subject matter jurisdiction for the Federal District Court to hear probate matters. In the matter of Berman v. Berman, 2009 WL 1617758 (D. N.J.) the case involved allegations of undue influence and lack of testamentary capacity to execute a Will, among other claims. The plaintiff filed the case in the New Jersey State Court, Probate Division and the defendant removed the case to the Federal District Court. The central issue for consideration was whether the Federal District Court could hear the dispute between the parties, which included probate issues.
The Federal District Judge noted that the United States Supreme Court had recognized a “probate exception” to otherwise proper federal jurisdiction. Accordingly, when a case may otherwise qualify to be heard in Federal Court, the Federal Court would not have jurisdiction where the matter involved (1) the probate or annulment of a will; (2) administration of a decedent’s estate; or (3) the assumption of jurisdiction of over property that was in the custody of the probate court.
Since the case in Berman involved questions of the validity of a Will, the Court determined that the “probate exception” applied and that the case had to be heard in the State Court. The case was therefore remanded to the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division.