In a continuation of our "rosetta stone" of "legalese" to English, Stacey C. Maiden, Esq. of our Estate Planning and Elder Law Department,
talks about a recent case that gives life to the dusty doctrine of
"laches". Aren't latches what you use to close a door ? Not if you are
a lawyer - to us "laches" means "too bad, you are out of time", as in, "that door is now locked".
Defendants often raise the "doctrine of laches" as an affirmative
defense in answers, but it is seldom applied by the Court. What exactly
is laches? The doctrine of laches is based on the maxim that "equity aids the vigilant and not those who slumber on their rights."
(Black's Law Dictionary). The outcome is that a legal right or claim
will not be enforced or allowed if a long delay in asserting the right
or claim has prejudiced the adverse party. Elements of laches include knowledge of a claim, unreasonable delay, neglect, which taken together hurt the opponent.
A New Jersey Court recently put the doctrine of laches to use in
dismissing claims made by a surviving spouse in an estate matter. In
the unpublished case Buie v. Estate of Buie, Chancery Div., Probate Part
(Essex Cty.) (Koprowski, J.S.C.), the decedent died testate, leaving
his property in Newark to be divided among his six children equally. One
week after his death, the plaintiff, his wife, who received non-probate
assets of $95,000, left the house in question and returned to South
Carolina with co-plaintiff, her son with the decedent.
14 years later [and yes, that is a long time later], the
plaintiff/surviving spouse filed an action demanding her intestate share
under N.J.S.A. 3B:5-3 as an omitted spouse under 3B:5-15 or an elective
share of her husband's estate under 3B:8-1. The court held that the omitted spouse claim was barred by the doctrine of laches
since there has been a substantial delay in bringing the action, the
plaintiff was the cause of the delay, and defendants have been
prejudiced as a result of the delay.
The court also held that plaintiff's claim under the Elective Share
statute was time-barred and that no good cause existed to extend the
time to file. Under New Jersey statute, plaintiffs must file claims for
elective share within 6 months of the appointment of a personal
representative. (N.J.S.A. §3B:8-12):
What is the take-away from this? If you have a legal claim, you have to act on it in a timely manner.
While some claims may have to be brought in a specific period because
of a statue-of-limitations (like the Elective Share in the example
above), all claims must be made in a reasonable time frame from when you
knew about the claim. It is very difficult to have to tell a client
while they may have the best case in the world, they aren't able to get
relief because they didn't act quickly enough. Luckily, the
Doctrine of Laches is entirely avoidable if you get legal advise from an
attorney at the time that you have a legal question.
Deirdre R. Wheatley-Liss is a shareholder of the Law Firm of Fein, Such, Kahn & Shepard, P.C., with offices in Parsippany and Toms River, New Jersey. She concentrates her practice in the areas of Elder Law, Estate Planning and Administration, Business Planning and Tax Law. Deirdre's individual clients range from their 20's to their 80's and beyond, while her business clients range from start-ups with exciting new ideas to 100+ year old business ventures. Clients seek Deirdre's advice and assistance with a variety of planning issues relating to identifying and meeting their personal, family and business goals, whether in a planning or crises situation.
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