Binding an Incompetent to a Contract

September 21, 2015 § Leave a comment

Can an incompetent person be bound to a contract?

That was one of the questions presented in Estate of Holmes: Holmes v. Turner, handed down by the COA on September 1, 2015.

Frances Holmes suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, and was a total-care nursing home patient for the last ten years of her life. Her son Jimmy had her power of attorney and was responsible for paying her bills for her. Frances had more than $150,000 invested in the stock market, but Jimmy elected not to liquidate her investments, apparently for tax reasons, choosing instead to pay Frances’s nursing home bills from his own money. He wrote $85,000 in checks for that purpose between 2007 and 2009, when a conservatorship was established, with Jimmy’s sister Becky as conservator, and she liquidated the stock to pay their mother’s expenses. Jimmy was not happy that Becky sold the stock, and left angry voicemails complaining that the proceeds of the stock sale belonged to him, due to his payment of his mother’s expenses. Becky responded with a letter explaining that the money was being used for Frances’s care. Jimmy never filed a claim against the conservatorship.

Jimmy died in March, 2011, and Frances died in September of the same year.

Becky had the conservatorship closed and admitted Frances’s will to probate. Under the terms of the will, Jimmy’s son Brett was to inherit Jimmy’s interest, since Jimmy had predeceased Frances. Becky notified Brett that his grandmother’s will had been probated. When Becky filed her Affidavit of Known Creditors, however, she did not name Jimmy. Notice to Creditors was published, and no claim was filed by Brett, who was fiduciary in Jimmy’s estate. A year later Brett did file a claim against Frances’s estate. Becky defended on the ground that Frances was incompetent, and so was incapable as a matter of law of entering into a contract. She also argued that Brett filed his claim too late. The chancellor disallowed the claim, and Brett appealed.

Judge Maxwell wrote for the court:

¶18. Becky argued—and the chancellor agreed—that Frances, who suffered from Alzheimer’s, was mentally incapable to enter a contract to repay the almost $85,000 worth of checks Jimmy wrote her. Of course, to be valid, a contract requires “parties with legal capacity to make a contract.” Rotenberry v. Hooker, 864 So. 2d 266, 270 (¶13) (Miss. 2003). But this case presents a unique circumstance where Frances’s mental incapacity was not a barrier to an implied contract arising. See Talbert v. Ellzey, 203 Miss. 612, 620, 35 So. 2d 628, 631-32 (1948).

¶19. In Talbert, the Mississippi Supreme Court recognize an implied contract existed between an incapacitated woman and her brother. Id. The brother had removed his incapacitated sister from the state mental hospital and took care of her until her death. According to the supreme court, “when necessaries are furnished to a person who by reason of mental incapacity cannot himself make a contract, the law implies or imposes an obligation or agreement on his part to pay for them; his liability for necessaries is deemed rather a benefit than a disadvantage to him.” Id. (citations omitted).

¶20. Here, Becky has conceded the checks Jimmy wrote to Frances were used for Frances’s benefit. While Frances lacked the mental capacity to make a contract with Jimmy to pay him back, the law recognizes she was not disadvantaged by the liability for her nursing care. So according to Talbert, the law imposed an obligation on Frances’s part to repay Jimmy the $85,000 he expended to pay for needed care. See id.

The court went on to find Brett’s claim to be untimely, which is the subject of another post.

These kinds of cases at the trial level are often fact-intensive and the facts are shaded with nuances. For instance, a daughter who can not afford to live on her own moves in with her mother. She cooks, cleans, and provides personal care for her increasingly incapacitated mother. At what point does the free room and board succumb to a claim for services rendered? If the mother never paid the daughter a cent during her lifetime, does that not raise a presumption that the mother considered the services a gift offered out of love and affection rather than compensable services?

In Holmes, it was clear — and undisputed — that the money was spent specifically for Frances’s care. Most of these type cases don’t offer so neat a fact package.

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