NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE
APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
This opinion shall not "constitute precedent or be binding upon any court." Although it is posted on the
internet, this opinion is binding only on the parties in the case and its use in other cases is limited. R. 1:36-3.
SUPERIOR COURT OF NEW JERSEY
DOCKET NO. A-5646-16T4
CESAR A. SANTANA,
Submitted November 13, 2018 - Decided December 5, 2018
Before Judges Sumners and Mitterhoff.
On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey,
Chancery Division, Family Part, Sussex County,
Docket No. FM-19-0123-16.
Kornitzer Family Law, LLC, attorneys for appellant
(Robert B. Kornitzer, on the brief).
Faith A. Ullmann & Associates, LLC attorneys for
respondent (Faith A. Ullmann, of counsel; Dina M.
Mikulka, on the brief).
The executor of defendant Cesar A. Santana's estate (the executor) appeals
from a trial court order granting summary judgment to plaintiff Nildia Acosta-
Santana and dismissing the divorce complaint with prejudice, and a subsequent
order denying the executor's motion for reconsideration. We affirm.
Plaintiff and defendant were married on March 27, 1990. On September
10, 2015, plaintiff filed a complaint for divorce against defendant. On June 3,
2016, defendant executed a last will and testament, which divided his estate into
equal shares for his and plaintiff's three children and directed that if all of his
children predeceased him, his estate should be given to his brother and sister-
in-law. Defendant's will nominated Richard A. Vera as executor of the will. On
October 28, 2016, defendant passed away, before the entry of a final judgment
On February 27, 2017, the executor filed a motion to interplead in the
divorce action pursuant to Rule 4:31, and to replace defendant in the divorce
action. By order dated May 3, 2017, the Honorable Noah Franzblau denied the
executor's motion to interplead, granted plaintiff's cross-motion for summary
judgment, and dismissed the divorce complaint with prejudice.
On May 24, 2017, the executor filed a motion for reconsideration. As part
of the motion for reconsideration, the executor certified that defendant "was
always very clear that he did not want his share of assets to be acquired by
[plaintiff], but to be left directly to his children[.]" The executor argued that
dismissing the divorce action would result in plaintiff's unjust enrichment and
harm to defendant, his children, and his creditors. According to the executor,
plaintiff would receive approximately $615,000 from defendant's estate and
from the property that defendant and plaintiff held jointly. However, "had
[defendant] survived and the divorce been finalized, [plaintiff] would have
likely received less than half of that amount because [defendant's] premarital
portion of his assets would have ultimately been taken into account in the
equitable distribution of their assets."
Judge Franzblau granted plaintiff's motion for summary judgment and
denied the executor's motion for interpleader. The judge recognized the New
Jersey precedents of Carr v. Carr, 120 N.J. 336 (1990) and Kay v. Kay, 405 N.J.
Super. 278 (App. Div.), aff'd 200 N.J. 551 (2010), but ruled that both cases were
inapposite. Judge Franzblau dismissed the divorce complaint based on the well-
established New Jersey law that "absent exceptional circumstances, divorce
proceedings abate with the death of one of the parties." Judge Franzblau found
that no exceptional circumstances existed and that plaintiff would not be
unjustly enriched by inheriting defendant's estate as a matter of law. The judge
also denied the executor's motion for reconsideration because the motion did not
"assert any new or material facts that were not previously considered by this
Court." This appeal followed.
We review a trial court's grant of summary judgment de novo. Conley v.
Guerrero, 228 N.J. 339, 346 (2017) (citing Templo Fuente De Vida Corp. v.
Nat'l Union Fire Ins. Co. of Pittsburgh, 224 N.J. 189, 199 (2016)). Thus,
"summary judgment will be granted if there is no genuine issue of material fact
and 'the moving party is entitled to a judgment or order as a matter of law.'"
Ibid. (citing Templo Fuente, 224 N.J. at 199). In reviewing a grant of summary
judgment, we consider "whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement
to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must
prevail as a matter of law." Brill v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 142 N.J. 520,
536 (1995) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. 242, 251-52 (1986)).
However, "conclusory and self-serving assertions by one of the parties are
insufficient to overcome [a summary judgment] motion." Puder v. Buechel, 183 N.J. 428, 440 (2005) (citing Martin v. Rutgers Cas. Ins. Co., 346 N.J. Super.
320, 323 (App. Div. 2002)). If there is no issue of fact, appellate courts give no
special deference to the trial court's rulings on matters of law. Templo Fuente,
224 N.J. at 199 (citing Manalapan Realty, L.P. v. Twp. Comm. of Manalapan,
140 N.J. 366, 378 (1995)).
As Judge Franzblau found, divorce proceedings abate when one of the
parties dies before the entry of the final order of divorce. Carr, 120 N.J. at 342;
Castonguay v. Castonguay, 166 N.J. Super. 546, 550 (App. Div. 1979); Jacobson
v. Jacobson, 146 N.J. Super. 491, 493 (Ch. Div. 1976). However,
if the facts justifying the entry of a decree
were adjudicated during the lifetime of the
parties to a divorce action, so that a decree
was rendered or could or should have been
rendered thereon immediately, . . . the
death of one of the parties to the action
subsequently to the rendition thereof, but
before it is in fact entered upon the record,
does not prevent the entry of a decree . . . .
[Olen v. Olen, 124 N.J. Super. 373, 377
(App. Div. 1973) (quoting
Furthermore, absent "highly unusual circumstances," equitable
distribution of marital assets occurs only upon the adjudication of divorce. Carr,
120 N.J. at 342-43; N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23(h). Highly unusual circumstances
include one party's fraud or unjust enrichment. Kay, 405 N.J. Super. at 284
(citing Carr, 120 N.J. at 351). In such cases, the trial court may, acting in equity,
impose a constructive trust on the marital assets, even after one of the spouses
has died during the pendency of the proceedings. Id. at 285.
Here, defendant died before the divorce proceeds concluded; thus, the
divorce proceedings abated with defendant's death, and absent exceptional
circumstances, equitable distribution would also abate. See Jacobson, 146 N.J.
Super. at 493; Carr, 120 N.J. at 342-43. Further, defendant and plaintiff had not
completed equitable distribution calculations when defendant died; thus, not all
of the facts were adjudicated while defendant was alive and a divorce decree
could not have been entered on those grounds. Olen, 124 N.J. Super. at 377.
We agree with the trial court's conclusion that this case does not present
any exceptional circumstances such as those presented by the facts in Carr and
Kay. See Carr, 120 N.J. at 350-51; Kay, 405 N.J. Super. at 285. In Carr, the
Court was concerned because, absent judicial intervention, the surviving spouse
of a seventeen-year marriage would have received nothing from the estate. See
120 N.J. at 344, 346 n.2. She did not qualify for equitable distribution because
the death of her spouse abated the divorce proceedings. Id. at 342. She also
could not obtain her elective share of the estate because the parties we re not
living together at the time of the husband's death. Id. at 344 (citing N.J.S.A.
3B:8-1). The Court in Carr court likened her situation to a "black hole." Ibid.
Under those unique facts, the Court upheld the lower court's rulings that the
surviving spouse was entitled to equitable relief, and that the proper relief under
the circumstances was the imposition of an equitable trust. Id. at 351.
As the trial court found, unlike Carr, the executor brought this interpleader
not to protect an innocent living spouse; rather, the executor seeks the
imposition of a constructive trust to enrich defendant's estate to the detriment of
the surviving spouse. 1 See id. at 340-41.
Furthermore, the executor has not demonstrated that plaintiff would be
unjustly enriched in the absence of a constructive trust. Unlike the facts in Kay,
there are no allegations of dissipation of marital assets. 405 N.J. Super. at 286.
While plaintiff certainly received a benefit by being the primary beneficiary of
defendant's insurance policies and retirement accounts and obtaining full
ownership of the house by operation of law, the executor failed to present an
argument that these benefits are unjust. The executor's primary argument is that
defendant's intent for his estate cannot be fulfilled if the court does not impose
a constructive trust, because most of defendant's property was held jointly with
plaintiff and defendant was unable to change the beneficiaries of his insurance
The parties' three adult children submitted certifications in opposition to the
executor's motion to interplead or establish a constructive trust and supporting
their mother's inheritance of the marital estate by operation of law.
policies before he died. However, the record does not indicate that plaintiff
committed any fraud or misconduct that would benefit her to the detriment of
the marital estate. Thus, the judge correctly found that there were no
exceptional circumstances that required equitable relief in this case and properly
denied the executor's motion to interplead and granted summary judgment in
favor of plaintiff.
Similarly, we agree that the trial court correctly denied defendant's motion
for reconsideration. We review a trial court's denial of a motion for
reconsideration for abuse of discretion. Guido v. Duane Morris L.L.P., 202 N.J.
79, 87 (2010). Motions for reconsideration "shall state with specificity the basis
on which it is made, including a statement of the matters or controlling decisions
which counsel believes the court has overlooked or as to which it has erred[.]"
Reconsideration should be utilized only for
those cases which fall into that narrow
corridor in which either 1) the Court has
expressed its decision based upon a
palpably incorrect or irrational basis, or 2)
it is obvious that the Court either did not
consider, or failed to appreciate the
significance of probative, competent
evidence . . . .
[Cummings v. Bahr, 295 N.J. Super. 374,
384 (App. Div. 1996) (quoting D'Atria v.
D'Atria, 242 N.J. Super. 392, 401-02 (Ch.
Furthermore, "if a litigant wishes to bring new or additional information
to the [c]ourt's attention which it could not have provided on the first
application, the [c]ourt should, in the interest of justice (and in the exercise of
sound discretion), consider the evidence." Ibid.
Here, the executor's argument is fundamentally a disagreement with the
trial judge's decision. The executor loosely argues that the judge failed to
consider Carr and Kay. However, Judge Franzblau's written opinion provides a
full analysis of both cases and correctly found that they were inapposite. The
executor also argues that the trial court did not consider that its ruling would
create an unjust result for defendant's estate. To the contrary, the judge
recognized that defendant's testamentary plans would not be carried out, but
ruled that it was not an unjust result. Thus, the executor failed to present any
new evidence, material evidence, or case law that the judge failed to consider.
See R. 4:49-2. Furthermore, the executor failed to establish that the trial court's
decision was based on "a palpably incorrect or irrational basis." See Cummings,
295 N.J. Super. at 384 (quoting D'Atria, 242 N.J. Super. at 401-02). We thus
find that the trial judge did not abuse his discretion in denying the executor's
motion for reconsideration. See Guido, 202 N.J. at 87.
The remaining arguments raised by the executor are without sufficient
merit to warrant discussion in a written opinion. R. 2:11-3(e)(1)(E).