Oddities and occasional inequities of the Chancery practice – Part 2

Bubba’s Bad Day

Junior was a bad man.  He knew he was no good, and every single person who had the misfortune of meeting him knew he was no good.  But he was smart.  And while he served his 25 years behind bars, he focused his substantial intellect on making sure his daddy’s nest egg would be there for him after he had served his debt to society.

Junior’s daddy was known to the rest of the world as Bubba. Junior was Bubba’s only child.  Bubba had no other kin besides Junior.  No sibling, no parents.  Junior figured Bubba was too dim witted to think to do a will, and Junior had done his homework on the intestacy statute.  He knew his father’s money would be all his someday.  So he was cordial, even if he did not care much for the father he barely knew.

Unfortunately for Junior, Bubba met Angela.  Angela was Bubba’s best friend and a widowed mother of 3 who lived next door to Bubba since childhood.  She took care of “Uncle Bubba”, and made sure he ate healthy meals and went to the doctor.  Bubba was physically fine, but Bubba was losing it.  Sure he had good days and bad days, but Junior had heard through the grapevine that Bubba was fading fast, and more importantly, he heard Bubba planned on going to a lawyer to finally “get things in order.”  Junior knew a Will was nothing but bad news for Junior.

On November 24, Junior had his lawyer commence a proceeding in the Superior Court to declare Junior incapacitated (incompetent).  The court set a hearing for December 29.

When Bubba and Angela learned of the application, they immediately went to a well-respected attorney to have a will prepared.  The will divided Bubba’s substantial estate 75% to Angela and 25% to Junior.  Bubba was not in the best of shape, and his prognosis was very poor (he was suffering mini strokes fairly regularly), but on the day of the Will’s execution (December 1), he was in good sprits, knew what he owned, knew who he wanted to give it to, and knew he was making a will.  Present for the execution of the Will on December 1 was the family doctor, a licensed psychologist, a former judge of the chancery court, and Bubba’s attorney.

The hearing on December 29 was a total disaster.  Bubba did not know who he was, he called the court reporter Angela, he claimed the former chancellor had stolen his entire estate, and he was unable to sign his name, do simple arithmetic, or button his shirt.  The court declared Bubba incapacitated, and appointed Angela the guardian of his person and property.

Bubba died two weeks after the hearing.  The Will was submitted to probate, but Junior had filed a Caveat.  Junior submitted only three documents to the Probate Court in support of his claim that the will was invalid.  The Court immediately invalidated the will without taking testimony.  Junior took the entire estate through intestacy.

What were those three documents?  The three documents submitted by Junior were:  (1) the filed application for incompetency dated November 24  (2) the order of incapacity December 29; (3) a copy of N.J.S.A 3B:12-27 entitled “Distribution of mental incompetent’s property as intestate property” which reads: “If a mental incompetent dies intestate or without any will except one which was executed after commencement of proceedings which ultimately resulted in a judgment of incompetency, and before a judgment has been entered adjudicating a return to competency, his property shall descend and be distributed as in the case of intestacy.”

The Court’s felt compelled by law to invalidate the Will and allow the property to pass by intestacy. Is that the fair result? Should the Judge have heard the testimony?  Shouldn’t the Court have he discretion to decide when the true incapacity started? Could there still be a lucid interval? What happens if the Court appoints a “limited Guardian”?  Are there not degrees of incapacity? Are incapacity and testamentary capacity the same thing?

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