In my January 20 blog post, I discussed the time limits imposed under R. 4:85-1 of the New Jersey Court Rules for filing challenges to the probate of a will. In an Appellate Division case decided on January 18, 2013, the effect of an administrator’s fraud on those time limits was addressed, in Matter of the Estate of Elizabeth Tanksley, Docket No. A-1056-11T2 (Jan. 18, 2013).
In Tanksley, the decedent’s estate, which included the real property at the heart of the case, was not administered for several years after her death. During that time, one of her daughters (“Steele”) moved into the property and began to maintain it.
In 2005, Steele filed with the Surrogate an Affidavit of Heir seeking title to the property. In that affidavit, Steele listed herself as the decedent’s only heir, and certified that she “presented for filing the consent of all of said heirs who have capacity to consent.” Accordingly, she was entitled the property without letters of administration, pursuant to N.J.S.A. 3B:10-4, and was appointed administratrix of the estate. She then transferred the property to herself.
In 2007, the decedent’s other daughter (“Randells”) learned of the property transfer and informed the Surrogate of her status as heir. It was not until 2011 that Randells filed a complaint to revoke Steele’s appointment as administratrix of the estate, and to vacate the deed. In response, Steele claimed that Randells’ suit was time-barred, pursuant to R. 4:85-1. Randells responded that, pursuant to R. 4:50-3, that limitations period can be extended where there has been a fraud upon the court.
The trial court had ruled that Randells’ complaint was time-barred under R. 4:85-1, and that the doctrine of laches applied, based upon Randells’ delay. It also concluded, without elaboration, that R. 4:50-3 did not extend the limitations period.
In reversing the trial court’s dismissal of the case as time-barred, the Appellate Division agreed with Randells that the trial court had failed to properly consider R. 4:50. It recognized that a litigant seeking relief under R. 4:50-1(d) (the judgment/order is void) or R. 4:50-3 (fraud upon the court) must file a complaint within “a reasonable time under the circumstances.” R. 4:85-1. It therefore rejected the trial court’s ruling that, once Randells discovered Steele’s fraud, Randells had to comply with the limitation period of R. 4:85-1 (4 months if in-state, and 6 months if out of state). The appellate court noted that, “when fraud is committed upon the court, R. 4:50-3 allows relief to ‘be obtained “without limitation as to time”’” and that “equitable principles guide the inquiry and no preordained time limitations are applicable.” Thus, if Steele committed a fraud on the court, the Appellate Division reasoned that Randells “was not required to file her motion for relief from judgment within any particular period of time,” and that equitable principles controlled whether the filing was timely. It therefore reversed and remanded the case to the trial court.