NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE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-5350-18T2
IN THE MATTER OF
THE ESTATE OF
STUART V.V. WILLSON,
Submitted June 3, 2020 – Decided June 30, 2020
Before Judges Haas, Mayer and Enright.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey,
Chancery Division, Mercer County, Docket No. P-16-
Pisciotta & Menasha LLC, and Starr Gern Davison &
Rubin PC, attorneys for appellant Wylie R. Willson
(Cathyanne A. Pisciotta and Ronald L. Davison, on the
Flaster Greenberg PC, attorneys for respondent Amelia
Willson (John Philip Kirchner and Eric R. Clendening,
on the brief).
Plaintiff Wylie R. Willson (Wylie) appeals from an August 1, 2019 order
granting summary judgment in favor of defendant Amelia Willson (Amelia) and
denying her motion for partial summary judgment. 1 We affirm.
Amelia is the second wife of decedent Stuart V.V. Willson (Stuart). Wylie
is Stuart's daughter with his first wife. Stuart and Amelia were married for over
In 1992, two years after Stuart and Amelia married, Stuart executed a will
equally dividing his residual probate estate between Amelia and Wylie. In
addition, Wylie was given a $100,000 general bequest. From 1992 to 2014,
Stuart made several new wills that adhered to the equal division of his residuary
estate between Wylie and Amelia but eliminated the $100,000 general bequest
to Wylie. In each of the revised wills, Amelia was named co-executor of the
estate, along with Stuart's estate attorney.
From 2014 until just prior to his death in March 2016, Stuart changed his
estate plan three more times. On June 3, 2014, Stuart executed a will giving his
entire residuary estate to Wylie and designating her as the sole executor. During
Because the parties share the same last name, we refer to them by their first
names. No disrespect is intended.
his lifetime, Stuart financially supported Wylie, providing her with an estimated
In November 2014, Stuart executed a new will. The November 2014 will
named Amelia as the sole executor and beneficiary of the residuary estate.
Just prior to executing the November 2014 will, Stuart also changed the
beneficiary designations on his two retirement accounts. Amelia was designated
the sole beneficiary on one account. The other account was to be distributed as
follows: ten percent to Amelia, thirty percent to Wylie, and the remainder to
other members of Stuart's family. In April 2015, Stuart again changed the
beneficiary designation on his second retirement account, distributing sixty-
seven percent to Amelia and thirty-three percent to Wylie. In February 2016,
Stuart designated Amelia as the sole beneficiary on the second retirement
Starting in 2012, Stuart's health declined. In November 2015, he began
using a wheelchair. During a November 27, 2015 examination, Stuart's
physician described his condition as "normal," finding he was "[o]riented to
time, place, person & situation. Appropriate mood and affect."
In January 2016, Stuart told his estate lawyers that he wanted to limit
Wylie's inheritance to $200,000. While discussing with Stuart the intent to
revise his estate plan, Stuart's attorney noted the absence of any mental
incompetence or undue influence regarding Stuart's wishes in distributing his
estate. During a medical exam on January 20, 2016, Stuart's doctor described
Stuart as "alert and oriented" and "in no acute distress."
On January 26, 2016, Stuart and Amelia went to the estate planning
lawyer's office to execute a new will.2 Due to a recent snowfall, Stuart's attorney
and Stuart were unable to meet face-to-face. Another partner in the law firm,
who previously drafted wills for Amelia, 3 went to the parking lot to discuss
Stuart's will and witness its execution. In addition, two law firm employees
went to Stuart's car to serve as a witness and notary.
Standing outside of Stuart's car, the attorney reviewed the new will with
Stuart. Amelia left the car when Stuart discussed the terms of the new will with
his attorney. According to counsel, Stuart acknowledged he understood the
provisions in the new will. Based on their discussion, the attorney found Stuart
had testamentary capacity to execute the will. Counsel explained she would not
Ultimately, this became Stuart's last will.
3 In a February 12, 1999 letter, Amelia's attorney disclosed the possible conflict
of interest and loss of attorney-client privilege due to the firm's joint
representation of Amelia and Stuart. Amelia and Stuart countersigned the letter,
waiving any potential conflict.
have allowed Stuart to execute the will if there was any doubt as to his
understanding of the will or his testamentary capacity. The individual who
notarized the will certified Stuart understood what he was signing. In addition,
the notary reported that she did not observe anything suspicious regarding the
execution of the will.
The January 2016 will bequeathed $200,000 to Wylie and nothing else.
Shortly after executing the January 2016 will, Stuart instructed his estate
planning attorneys to draft a memorandum explaining why he changed his estate
After preparing the memorandum Stuart requested, on February 9, 2016,
one of the attorneys went to Stuart's home to review the document. Amelia was
not in the room when Stuart discussed the memorandum with his attorney. The
meeting between Stuart and his lawyer lasted forty-five minutes to one hour.
The attorney who witnessed the January 2016 will attended the meeting to
review the February 2016 memorandum. Counsel had no doubt about Stuart's
mental competency at the February 2016 meeting, nor any doubt about Stuart's
desire to limit the bequest to Wylie and remove her as a beneficiary on his
The memorandum, as ultimately signed by Stuart, explained he removed
Wylie as a beneficiary on his retirement account because he "made significant
gifts to her annually" throughout his life, and the $200,000 bequest in his will
was adequate. The document confirmed that Stuart's changes to his estate plans,
including removal of Wylie as a beneficiary on his retirement account, were
undertaken at Stuart's express request.
From the date of his execution of the memorandum until his death, Stuart
received treatment from a hospice doctor who noted that while Stuart's responses
were somewhat delayed, he was "alert oriented x3." The director of the hospice
care facility certified that when she spoke to Stuart, he was "extremely alert and
oriented and clear." Stuart died on March 2, 2016.
Just days after his death, on March 8, 2016, Wylie filed a caveat to the
appointment of Amelia as executor of Stuart's estate. On March 15, 2016,
Amelia filed a verified complaint to probate the January 2016 will. Wylie filed
an answer and counterclaim alleging Stuart lacked the requisite mental
competence to execute the November 2014 and January 2016 wills and to change
the beneficiary designations for his retirement accounts.
After completing discovery, Amelia moved for summary judgment as to
Wylie's claims. Wylie opposed the motion and cross-moved for partial summary
judgment, seeking a presumption of undue influence based on an alleged
confidential relationship and suspicious circumstances surrounding the
execution of his November 2014 and January 2016 wills and the changes to the
beneficiary designation on Stuart's retirement accounts.
The parties submitted voluminous exhibits with their respective motions,
including deposition transcripts, medical records, certifications, and statements
of material fact. After hearing oral argument on August 1, 2019, the trial judge
granted Amelia's motion for summary judgment and denied Wylie's cross-
motion for partial summary judgment. The judge concluded Wylie failed to
establish a lack of testamentary capacity as to Stuart's November 2014 and
January 2016 wills. Instead of presenting clear and convincing evidence in
support of her claims, the judge found Wylie submitted her own speculation and
a report by a medical expert who never examined Stuart and rendered an opinion
based solely on documents provided by Wylie.
The judge determined "[t]he evidence presented . . . in this case clearly
and convincingly demonstrate[d] that at the time of the execution of the [w]ills,
that Stuart had testamentary capacity." The judge extensively summarized the
certifications submitted by various individuals, other than Wylie, who cited
examples of Stuart's testamentary capacity when he executed the November
2014 and January 2016 wills and changed the beneficiary of his retirement
account. The judge also noted the February 9, 2016 memorandum was "drafted
. . . at Stuart's expressed instructions as an explanation by Stuart to [his estate
attorneys] of his reasons for changing his estate plan, including the changes
reflected in his Last Will and the changes to his beneficiary designation of his
IRA." In reading from that memorandum, the judge quoted Stuart:
I am hereby confirming that [at] my expressed direction
the primary beneficiary of my IRA account was
changed solely to my wife, Amelia Willson. I have
intentionally removed my daughter, Wylie, as a
primary beneficiary of my IRA because I have made
what I feel is adequate provision for her in my [w]ill
and have made significant gifts to her annually during
my lifetime, some of which required gift tax returns.
The judge further noted Stuart's medical providers "uniformly described him as
mentally sharp and appropriately focused" during the relevant time periods.
Against the overwhelming evidence supporting Stuart's testamentary
capacity, the judge found "what we have from Wylie with regards to [Stuart's]
capacity is very little, other than the fact that there is a change in the estate
documents." Therefore, the judge granted summary judgment in favor of
Amelia and dismissed Wylie's claim that Stuart lacked mental capacity.
In reviewing Wylie's undue influence claim, the judge considered the
factors required to prove such a claim and determined Wylie failed to submit
sufficient evidence of a confidential relationship and suspicious circumstances
to support that allegation. The judge explained "[n]one of the evidence
presented to the [c]ourt demonstrates that the character of the relationship
between Stuart and Amelia was any different than one would expect from any
other marriage of some period of time – this was over [twenty] years[.]" The
judge found "the actions between Stuart and Amelia, most especially over the
last four or five years of the relationship [prior to] Stuart's death, ju st evidences
to the [c]ourt a natural [marital] relationship. The actions taken by Amelia did
not demonstrate to the [c]ourt any confidential relationship." He also noted
Wylie failed to demonstrate any suspicious circumstances other than to state that
her father changed his estate plan. After reviewing the evidence presented, the
the evidence . . . shows both that Stuart was fully
competent when he made these decisions, the evidence
that there was some trouble in the relationship between
him and Wylie. . . . there's . . . not been a sufficient
showing of any type of suspicious circumstance[s] that
would lead the [c]ourt to shift the burden of proof in
this particular case.
Therefore, the judge dismissed Wylie's undue influence claim.
On appeal, Wylie argues the judge erred in granting summary judgment
and dismissing her claims of undue influence and lack of testamentary capacity.
We review a trial court's grant of summary judgment de novo, applying
the same standard as the trial court. Townsend v. Pierre, 221 N.J. 36, 59 (2015).
Summary judgment is appropriate where the record establishes there is "no
genuine issue as to any material fact challenged and that the moving party is
entitled to a judgment or order as a matter of law." R. 4:46-2(c). We view the
evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party to determine
whether there exist genuine disputes of material fact. Petro-Lubricant Testing
Labs., Inc. v. Adelman, 233 N.J. 236, 256 (2018); see also Brill v. Guardian Life
Ins. Co. of Am., 142 N.J. 520, 540 (1995).
To defeat a motion for summary judgment, the non-movant must raise
more than "some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts." Triffin v. Am.
Int'l Grp., Inc., 372 N.J. Super. 517, 523-24 (App. Div. 2004) (quoting Big
Apple BMW, Inc. v. BMW of N. Am., Inc., 974 F.2d 1358, 1363 (3rd Cir.
1992)). "[B]are conclusory assertions in an answering affidavit are insufficient
to defeat a meritorious application for summary judgment." Brae Asset Fund,
L.P. v. Newman, 327 N.J. Super. 129, 134 (App. Div. 1999). See also Pressler
& Verniero, Current N.J. Court Rules, cmt. 2.3.1 on R. 4:46-2 (2020) ("self-
serving assertion[s] alone will not create a question of material fact sufficient to
defeat a summary judgment motion").
In any challenge to a testamentary disposition, it is presumed "the testator
was of sound mind and competent when he executed the will" unless a
beneficiary unduly influenced the testator to make the disposition. In re
Livingston's Will, 5 N.J. 65, 71 (1950). Undue influence is the "mental, moral,
or physical exertion of a kind and quality that destroys the free will of the
testator by preventing that person from following the dictates of his or her own
mind as it relates to the disposition of assets, generally by means of a will or
inter vivos transfer." In re Estate of Stockdale, 196 N.J. 275, 302-03 (2008)
(citing Haynes v. First Nat'l State Bank, 87 N.J. 163, 176 (1981)).
When analyzing a claim of incapacity to make a testamentary disposition,
courts presume the testator had the necessary capacity. In re Will of Liebl, 260 N.J. Super. 519, 524 (App. Div. 1992) (citing Haynes, 87 N.J. at 175-76). "[T]he
law requires only a very low degree of mental capacity for one executing a will."
Ibid. (quoting In re Will of Rasnick, 77 N.J. Super. 380, 394 (Cty. Ct. 1962)).
Applying these principles, we reject Wylie's contentions of undue
influence and lack of testamentary capacity. Based on our de novo review of
the record, we affirm the August 1, 2019 order substantially for the reasons set
forth by Judge Paul Innes in his oral decision.
Here, despite Judge Innes's repeated requests to provide evidence in
support of her contentions, Wylie was unable to cite to any specific evidence
other than Stuart's changes to his estate plan. Wylie's reliance on speculation
and her own doubt about the certifications attesting to Stuart's testamentary
capacity, without more, was insufficient to withstand a meritorious summary
judgment motion. Because the evidence was so one-sided, summary judgment
in favor of Amelia was proper. Brill, 142 N.J. at 533.