Life Estate with Right to Convey Fee Simple

September 12, 2017 § Leave a comment

May a person convey property by warranty deed to another, reserving both a life estate and the right to convey the property as if he were fee simple owner?

In 1973, Gilbert Lum executed a warranty deed conveying a 40-acre tract to his daughter, Lucille Crotwell. The deed included the following language:

“Grantor, however, does hereby expressly RESERVE unto himself a life estate in the foregoing lands coupled with a full and absolute disposition to be exercised by him as though he were the fee simple owner thereof … also RESERVING unto himself all mineral interest owned by him in said lands for his lifetime.”

In 1998, Lum conveyed one acre of the tract to Prestage by warranty deed, subject to his life estate for mineral interests. Prestage in turn conveyed the property to himself and his wife as tenants by the entirety. The couple executed a deed of trust which, after mesne assignments, was foreclosed on in August, 2011, and purchased by T&W Homes.

In December, 2011, the Crotwells filed a complaint to confirm title, remove cloud, and for ejectment. The special chancellor granted summary judgment that Lum had reserved a life estate only, and that his reservation of the right to reconvey fee simple title was “an illegal and void restraint upon alienation and repugnant to the granting clause of the deed. T&W filed an interlocutory appeal.

In T&W Homes v. Crotwell, decided August 24, 2017, the MSSC affirmed. Justice Randolph wrote for the 7-2 majority:

¶7. T&W argues that deeds containing reservations of life estates with power to reconvey fee simple title are recognized in other states. Each case cited by T&W is not only foreign to Mississippi law, but is factually distinguishable. … the deed at issue in the case sub judice effected a then-present conveyance by general warranty deed of real property owned by Lum. After acknowledging receipt of valuable consideration—thus taking this case outside the realm of inter vivos and testamentary gifts—Lum“[c]onvey[ed] and warrant[ed]” the forty acres described in the deed to Crotwell. The deed was signed, delivered, notarized, and filed—putting the world on notice of the transaction. Crotwell was the grantee identified in the deed. She was described in the deed as a contingent remainderman, as posited by the dissent. See Diss. Op. at ¶ 20.6 The words  “remainder” or “remainderman” are not in the deed sub judice. Contra Jamieson, 912 S.W.2d at 604-05.

¶8. …  [Footnotes omitted] The Lum-Crotwell deed reads that consideration was exchanged. On his oath, Lum acknowledged receipt of consideration in the notarized deed, rendering [a Maryland case] inapposite and unpersuasive.

¶9. Finally, T&W asks this Court to consider Kyle v. Wood, 86 So. 2d 881 (Miss. 1956). While Kyle remains good law for the principles of wills and testaments, it offers no guidance to today’s case. [Fn omitted]

¶10. In Kyle, J.A. Wood’s 1948 will contained the following provision:

I will and give all my property of every kind wherever located to my beloved wife, Mrs. Molly Wood, to have [and] to hold during her lifetime to use, sell and dispose of as she sees fit; and at her death, then such property left to my said wife by me is to be given to my nephew, by marriage, Arthur Kyle.

Id. at 882. J.A. Wood died in 1952. Id. Later that year, Molly conveyed the property to another. [Fn omitted] After her death, [Fn omitted] nephew Kyle filed suit against her grantees, complaining that the grant of power in J.A. Wood’s will to dispose was invalid. Id. at 882-83. This Court found Molly’s conveyance valid:

It thus appears that the rule is well settled by our own decisions, that where a testator gives an estate for life only, with the added power to the life tenant to convey the estate absolutely, the life tenant may defeat the estate of the remainderman under the will by the exercise of the power of disposal during his lifetime.

Id. at 885.

¶11. Today’s case is governed by the law of deeds, not the law of wills and testaments. [Fn omitted] To write a learned treatise on each subject is not the endeavor of this opinion, which would be the result were we to discuss exhaustively the voluminous distinctions between these intricate and nuanced bodies of law. Suffice to say, we offer only a smattering of distinguishing features. A grantor of a deed must deliver it before it becomes effective. [Fn omitted] On the other hand, to convey real property by will, the testator devises [Fn omitted] the real property upon death. And while wills are revocable by the testator at any time before death, a warranty deed for consideration (no matter how slight) is irrevocable between the parties once executed—and once filed, is valid against the world. The rule of Kyle affects testators of wills, not grantors in deeds.

¶12. The provisions in Wood’s will and Lum’s deed also differ. Wood left his wife a life estate in his property with the power to dispose. Lum, however, did not deed his daughter a life estate with the power to dispose, but rather conveyed the property by a general warranty deed to his daughter in fee and reserved unto himself a life estate. The provisions of Wood’s will were testamentary gifts. His nephew Kyle was a mere remainderman. The Lum-Crotwell deed was not a gift; it was a completed transfer or conveyance of real property with no reference to a contingent remainder. Crotwell was Lum’s grantee. T&W’s attempt to use testamentary law to settle a deed dispute is no less repugnant than the contested language in the deed before us.

¶13. Unlike the cases cited by T&W, the deed from Lum to Crotwell was not a future gift. It was not an enhanced life estate with potential remaindermen. The deed effected a present conveyance, consideration of which was acknowledged in the deed. Lum “convey[ed] and
warrant[ed]” the property to Crotwell. And as the chancellor noted, “warrant” conveys a statutorily defined meaning. See Miss. Code Ann. § 89-1-33 (Rev. 2011) (“The word “warrant” without restrictive words in a conveyance shall have the effect of embracing all of the five (5) covenants known to common law, to wit: seizin, power to sell, freedom from incumbrance, quiet enjoyment and warranty of title.”). The warranty deed contained no restriction on the warranty. Thus any attempt to reserve the power to reconvey, or convey again, fee simple title is repugnant to the grant of the warranty, which included all of the aforementioned covenants, as found by the learned chancellor.

¶14. A deed case directly on point which validates the chancellor’s decision is Dukes v. Crumpton, 103 So. 2d 385, 386 (Miss. 1958). The deed from Dukes to Crumpton contained the following provision: “Grantor or his successor reserve all rights of sale and management.” This Court held that such a provision “is an illegal and void restraint upon alienation and repugnant to the granting clause of the deed.” Id. at 388. T&W attempts to distinguish Dukes, arguing that while the reservation in Dukes was perpetual, the one from Lum to Crotwell terminated with the life estate. However, the shortened life of the reservation does not render an otherwise repugnant clause valid. The fact remains that a present conveyance, for which sufficient consideration was duly acknowledged, was executed, subject only to a life estate. That conveyance carried with it the five covenants that attached to the warranty of the deed. Because the warranty was without restriction, any reservation of the right of the grantor to sell fee simple title to property already conveyed was repugnant to the covenant of the power to sell included in the grant and warranty to Crotwell. Pursuant to the deed, Crotwell acquired ownership of the property upon delivery of the deed—March 13, 1973. Lum could not subsequently convey to Prestage property he no longer owned.

¶15. The dissent is correct that, when interpreting deeds, we look to the language employed in the deed to determine and effectuate the intent of the parties. [Fn omitted] Before making an omniscient declaration of the parties’ intent, the dissent contorts and amends the “plain language of the deed” by asserting (1) that “Lum’s deed conveyed to Lucille no present interest in the property,” (2) that it instead “provided her a contingent remainder,” and (3) that it “clearly stated that title to the property in fee simple would vest in Lucille only upon Lum’s death provided he had not otherwise conveyed the property during his lifetime.” Diss. Op. at ¶ 20. Yet none of these conclusions is supported by the words of the deed. The
language ofthe deed effectuates a present conveyance: “I, Gilbert Lum, [address] convey and warrant to Lucille Lum Crotwell [address]” the described forty acres (emphasis added). The deed recites and acknowledges receipt of consideration, and Lum swore it was delivered. Nowhere in the deed does it describe Crotwell’s interest as a contingent remainder. Nor did Lum transfer, grant, or convey a life estate. He conveyed the described property to Crotwell while reserving unto himself a life estate. There were no words of inheritance in the deed, either in the warranty portion or following the reservation to himself. Upon his death, his life interest dissolved. Had Lum conveyed to himself a life estate with the right to dispose of the property, remainder to Crotwell (as the dissent would characterize the deed before us), the dissent’s interpretation of his intent would hold water. [Fn omitted] But such is not the case. [Emphasis in original]

¶16. We agree with the chancellor that Lum retained an ownership interest in the property—his life estate—which he retained the right to sell during his lifetime. But rather than “fail[ing] to recognize a contingent remainder,” [Fn omitted] we restrict our analysis to the words
of the deed and decline to create a contingent remainder when one is not contained therein.

Pardon the truncated version of the opinion. I was trying to capture the gist of it for you. You can read the original for your own edification if you need it to argue. The footnotes omitted above by themselves would make a fine opinion in their own right.

One trivial quibble: deeds are usually acknowledged, not sworn to. There is a difference between the two actions, as I have explained previously. At a couple of points in the opinion, mention is made that Lum swore to delivery and other averments of the deed. The actual language of the deed is not included with the opinion, so we readers do not know whether the deed was sworn or acknowledged. My guess, though, is that it was merely acknowledged because that is how deeds are executed, per MCA 89-3-1, et seq.

Divorce is a Rule 4 Action

September 11, 2017 § 2 Comments

Last week I invited your comments on this language from the MSSC’s decision in Lewis v. Pagel, the case that changed the law of venue in Mississippi divorce actions:

¶34. It is uncontested in the record that Drake did not answer Tonia’s complaint for divorce. While Drake was not required to do so, he was permitted to do so under Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 81. M.R.C.P 81(d)(4); see also M.R.C.P. 12. Drake certainly could have responded to Tonia’s complaint and challenged venue. Instead, Drake chose to litigate the entire divorce and several ancillary matters, including several appeals, before raising his venue objection once a contempt judgment appeared imminent.

A couple of commentors hit the nail on the head.

The problem with that statement is that divorce is not a R81 matter; it is a R4 matter. Read R81(d) for yourself. Other than a motion for temporary relief in a divorce, there is no mention of divorce in R81(d). That’s because process in a divorce is made pursuant to R4, and an answer is required within 30 days of service or the defendant will be in default. Now, it is true that a divorce complaint may not be taken as confessed, so that failure to file an answer can not result in entry of a default judgment as would be the case in a law suit; however, it is not R81 process that would be returnable to a day certain, and failure to file an answer does have consequences unlike R81.

It is true that R81 is “subject to limited applicability” to Title 93, which includes divorces. But that provision yields to statutory “procedures” that may be in conflict with the rules, and there are no statutory procedures spelled out in Title 93 that conflict with R4, or with R81 for that matter.

The reason I am pointing this out is not because I like to challenge the justices. It’s because I think it’s important for us to keep these things straight to avoid confusion. The above unfortunate language now sleeps in our jurisprudence, possibly to awaken and do mischief in some later case.

I think sometimes that lawyers who have not spent much time dealing with R81 see it as some kind of mystical incantation that must be invoked in chancery matters, and that unless the rituals are properly observed and the magic is properly invoked, jurisdiction will not attach.

The fact is that R4 and R81 are simply two different systems for service of process. Every matter is a R4 action unless it is specifically mentioned in R81(d). It’s as simple as that.

Divorce Venue Can Be Waived

September 5, 2017 § 2 Comments

If there is one maxim of conventional wisdom in Mississippi divorce law, it is “Venue in a divorce is jurisdictional.” As a result, an objection to venue can not be waived.

That’s because the divorce venue statute, MCA 93-5-11, has been construed to confer subject matter jurisdiction which, as everyone knows, can neither be waived nor voluntarily conferred. The concept is embedded in our case law.

The foregoing was the law until June 1, 2017. Now the law has changed.

In Lewis v. Pagel, decided by the MSSC on June 1, 2017, Drake Lewis tried to argue on appeal that the chancery court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction over his divorce from Tonia Lewis Pagel because he was not a resident of the county where the divorce was filed. The Supreme Court rejected that argument, and turned its attention to the question whether Drake had waived what up until then had been unwaivable. Justice Chamberlin wrote for a unanimous court:

 ¶28. In addition to residing in Harrison County, Drake waived his objection to improper venue by not timely raising it. Under Mississippi law, it is a “basic premise that venue may be waived.” Belk v. State Dep’t of Pub. Welfare, 473 So. 2d 447, 451 (Miss. 1985).

¶29. Section 159 of the Mississippi Constitution vests subject-matter jurisdiction in the chancery courts over divorce proceedings. Miss. Const. art. 6, § 159. Personal jurisdiction in a divorce proceeding, though, is governed by Mississippi Code Section 93-5-11. Section 93-5-11 was amended by the Legislature in 2005 to include new language on the transfer of venue: “Transfer of venue shall be governed by Rule 82(d) of the Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure.” Miss. Code Ann. § 93-5-11; see also 2005 Miss. Laws 448. Rule 82(d) of the Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure provides:

(d) Improper Venue. When an action is filed laying venue in the wrong county, the action shall not be dismissed, but the court, on timely motion, shall transfer the action to the court in which it might properly have been filed and the case shall proceed as though originally filed therein. The expenses of the transfer shall be borne by the plaintiff. The plaintiff shall have the right to select the court to which the action shall be transferred in the event the action might properly have been filed in more than one court.

M.R.C.P. 82 (emphasis in original). Further, the Rules provide the procedure for contesting improper venue. M.R.C.P. 12(b). We have not applied the language of Section 93-5-11 directly after its 2005 amendment.

¶30. We recognize that before the 2005 amendment this Court consistently found that Section 93-5-11 could not be waived as it vested subject-matter jurisdiction over divorce actions in the chancery courts. See Cruse v. Cruse, 202 Miss. 497, 499, 32 So. 2d 355, 355 (1947) (applying Section 2738); Price v. Price, 202 Miss. 268, 272, 32 So. 2d 124,125 (1947) (applying Section 2738); Carter v. Carter, 278 So. 2d 394, 396 (Miss. 1973) (applying Section [93-5-11’s 1942 Code predecessor]) [Fn omitted] ; Miller v. Miller, 323 So. 2d 533, 534 (Miss. 1975); Stark v. Stark, 755 So. 2d 31, 33 (Miss. Ct. App. 1999); Slaughter v. Slaughter, 869 So. 2d 386, 395 (Miss. 2004); see also Bush v. Bush, 903 So. 2d 700, 701 (Miss. 2005) (order granting and deciding merits of petition for interlocutory appeal).

¶31. Today, we overrule these past cases to the extent that they hold that Section 93-5-11 confers subject-matter jurisdiction on chancery courts. [Fn 3] Subject-matter jurisdiction is conveyed by the Mississippi Constitution. Section 93-5-11 governs the venue of a divorce action and limits the chancery court’s exercise of personal jurisdiction over the defendant. The Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure control the procedure to be utilized when venue is improper. [My emphasis]

[Fn 3]  In 2006—after Section 93-5-11 was amended—this Court, in dicta, found that Section 93-5-11’s venue requirement conferred subject-matter jurisdiction on the chancery courts. National Heritage Realty, Inc. v. Estate of Boles, 947 So. 2d 238, 248–49 (Miss. 2006) (applying Miss. Code Ann. § 91-7-63(1)). We decline to follow this interpretation of Section 93-5-11 post-amendment. It appears the Boles Court did not take the amendment into account.

¶32. Additionally, even if the venue argument was correct, the appropriate remedy would have been transfer of the matter to Jackson County. M.R.C.P. 82(d). Rule 82(d), explicitly incorporated by Section 93-5-11’s amendment, allows the court to transfer an action only “on timely motion.” Id.

¶33. Drake’s motion challenging venue—eight years after the initial complaint—was untimely. Tonia filed her complaint for divorce in 2006; the chancery court entered an order of divorce in 2008. Drake first raised the issue of venue in 2014—six years after the entry of the judgment of divorce.

¶34. It is uncontested in the record that Drake did not answer Tonia’s complaint for divorce. While Drake was not required to do so, he was permitted to do so under Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 81. M.R.C.P 81(d)(4); see also M.R.C.P. 12. Drake certainly could have responded to Tonia’s complaint and challenged venue. Instead, Drake chose to litigate the entire divorce and several ancillary matters, including several appeals, before raising his venue objection once a contempt judgment appeared imminent.

¶35. Our finding of waiver is reinforced by Drake’s actions after filing this appeal. After Drake noticed this appeal—in which he raises the issue of a lack of subject-matter jurisdiction before this Court—he entered three agreed orders that were approved as to form by his counsel. Each order recognizes that the Harrison County Chancery Court has jurisdiction over both the subject matter of the dispute and the parties involved in the
dispute. [Fn omitted] Therefore, we find that Drake has waived his objection to venue by litigating in Harrison County.

So there you have it. Venue in a divorce case is no longer a function of subject matter jurisdiction that can not be waived or voluntarily conferred; it is a function of personal jurisdiction that can be waived. If venue is improper, the issue must be timely raised, and the remedy is transfer, not dismissal.

Remember that “timely” language from R 82. It does no good to plant a venue objection in your answer, and then to joust through discovery and motions for a year or two only to try to get the case transferred after the tide has been running against your client.

One little fillip, though. Won’t this open up the possibility of forum shopping? The plaintiff and defendant may decide to file in a district where neither resides because it has a shorter wait time to final hearing, or has a judge who is more to their liking, or for any other reason. A judge may invoke R 82 on her own motion at any time, but something has to bring the issue to the judge’s attention for that to happen. Or maybe we are simply entering an era when the locus of the divorce no longer has that much significance. Stay tuned.

The New HCIT

July 6, 2017 § Leave a comment

In case you hadn’t noticed, habitual cruel and inhuman treatment, the seventh ground for divorce in Mississippi, has undergone a change, effective July 1, 2017.

Here is how the language of § 93-5-1, MCA, now reads:

Seventh. Habitual Cruel and inhuman treatment, including spousal domestic abuse.

Spousal domestic abuse may be established through the reliable testimony of a single credible witness, who may be the injured party, and includes, but is not limited to:

That the injured party’s spouse attempted to cause, or purposely, knowingly or recklessly caused bodily injury to the injured party, or that the injured party’s spouse attempted by physical menace to put the injured party in fear of imminent serious bodily harm; or

That the injured party’s spouse engaged in a pattern of behavior against the injured party of threats or intimidation, emotional or verbal abuse, forced isolation, sexual extortion or sexual abuse, or stalking or aggravated stalking as defined in Section 97-3-107, if the pattern of behavior rises above the level of unkindness or rudeness or incompatibility or want of affection.

How will this play out? We’ll have to see how the appellate courts interpret it, of course. But several thoughts come to mind:

  • By removing the corroboration requirement and replacing it with the testimony of a single “reliable” witness, the statute essentially leaves it up to the chancellor to make a credibility determination as to that individual. Since determining the credibility of and the weight to be given a witness’s testimony is exclusively the province of the chancellor, it should be practically impossible to get the chancellor’s decision reversed on appeal.
  • Some judges, I am sure, will be quite ready to give credibility to any person claiming to be the injured party. In those courts, the parties will be back to where we were up to the early 1980’s when chancellors had the latitude to conclude even where the proof was weak that the parties clearly needed a divorce, so it was granted.
  • The statute went into effect July 1, 2017. I don’t know whether the new language can be amended into already-filed pleadings, or whether it applies only to complaints filed after July 1, or whether it applies only to conduct arising on or after July 1.
  • I personally like the addition of “forced isolation” and emotional and sexual abuse rising above unkindness, rudeness, or incompatibility. That specific language opens up some areas that perhaps have been murky in our case law. Still, I wonder whether the courts will require proof of adverse effect on the injured party. Stay tuned.

What, Me Jury?

June 12, 2017 § 1 Comment

We all know that the chancellor is required to impanel a jury when requested to do so in a will contest, and that the jury’s verdict in such a case is binding unless the court directs a verdict otherwise or grants a new trial. At one time the same was true in paternity suits, but that was changed.

Not long ago a lawyer jokingly told me that he was going to request a jury trial in a divorce case. That got us wondering whether the old “advisory jury” that predated the MRCP was still available in cases other than will contests.

Well, actually, it is. MCA § 11-5-3 says that “The chancery court, in a controversy pending before it, and necessary and proper to be tried by a jury, shall cause the issue to be thus tried and made up in writing.” In modern parlance, that translates into “the chancery court may impanel a jury in a case pending before it.” The cases have broadly interpreted that “necessary and proper to be tried to a jury” language to extend to a wrongful death action in chancery via pendant jurisdiction, an action for accounting by a bankruptcy trustee, partition, and “conflicting claims to realty.”

The catch is that the chancellor is not bound by the jury’s verdict, and the verdict is purely advisory. As Griffith explained, “Because … (1) of the delay, (2) of the additional public expense, and (3) because the verdict of a jury in chancery is purely advisory and the chancellor may disregard it, such a submission in an equity case is seldom allowed or desired.” Griffith, Mississippi Chancery Practice, 2d Ed., 1950, § 597. Griffith goes on to point out that, if the chancellor accepts the verdict and incorporates it into a decree, on review the decree is regarded by the appellate court as if it were the findings of the chancellor, just as if there had been no jury.

An interesting wrinkle is MCA § 11-5-5, which states that, if the request for a jury trial is granted and afterward there is a change of venue, then the receiving court is required to impanel a jury to try the case.

Now, I am not advocating for or encouraging anyone to make routine demands for jury trials in chancery, particularly since they are advisory only. I just thought that all the law nerds out there would enjoy this tidbit of really trivial trivia.

Ex Parte Communication with a Treating Physician in an Estate Matter

May 16, 2017 § Leave a comment

Most of us are familiar with the prohibition in MRE 503(f) against ex parte communication with the treating physician of an opposing party, even when that party has put his own physical, mental, or emotional condition in issue.

Does that prohibition apply in a will contest where both parties claim to be personal representatives of the deceased?

In a case of first impression, the MSSC answered that it does not.

At the trial level, in a will contest involving Katherinne Lyons’ estate, between the testator’s brother (Larry Lyons) and nephew (Anthony Lobred), counsel for Lobred had ex parte communication with the testator’s treating physician before her depostion. Lyons filed a motion to strike the depostion testimony, which the chancellor granted. In the case of Estate of Lyons v. Lyons, handed down April 6, 2017, the MSSC reversed and remanded. Justice Coleman’s wrote for a unanimous court:

¶17. Although the facts surrounding Katherine’s testamentary capacity and Larry’s alleged undue influence are hotly disputed, the facts pertinent to the narrow issue before the Court on interlocutory appeal are not in dispute. It is undisputed that Lobred’s counsel communicated with Dr. Clement regarding Katherine’s medical condition prior to Dr. Clement’s deposition. The specific issue before the Court today is whether the testimony of the testator’s treating physician should be excluded based on contact between the treating physician and a party without the opposing party’s consent in a will contest wherein both parties are personal representatives of the deceased.

¶18. A panel of the Court ordered Larry to file a response to Lobred’s petition for permission to appeal addressing “whether the rule prohibiting ex parte communication with a treating physician applies in an estate matter.” The Court has held that the rule prohibiting ex parte communications under Mississippi Rule of Evidence 503(f) applies in the context of personal injury and medical malpractice cases. Scott v. Flynt, 704 So. 2d 998, 1000-01 (Miss. 1996). The comment to Rule 503 states that the “primary impact of subdivision (f) will be in personal injury actions, although the exception by its terms is not so limited.” According to the comment, the ex parte rule contained in Rule 503(f) could apply in estate matters. Thus, the question initially framed by a panel of the Court may be answered in the affirmative. However, the inquiry does not end here because the Court has yet to address how or if the rule prohibiting ex parte communications would apply in the context of a will contest where both parties can claim to be personal representatives of the deceased.

¶19. At the time of the trial court’s order on Larry’s motion to strike Dr. Clement’s testimony, Rule 503(f) provided:

(f) Any party to an action or proceeding subject to these rules who by his or her pleadings places in issue any aspect of his or her physical, mental or emotional condition thereby and to that extent only waives the privilege otherwise recognized by this rule. This exception does not authorize ex parte contact by the opposing party.

Miss. R. Evid. 503(f) (2015). Amended Rule 503(f) [Fn omitted] now provides:

(f) Waiver by Pleadings; Ex Parte Contact. A party whose pleadings place in issue any aspect of that party’s physical, mental, or emotional condition thereby–and to that extent only–waives the privilege. The exception in this subdivision (f) does not authorize ex parte contact by an opposing party.

Miss. R. Evid. 503(f) (2016).

¶20. In Scott, the trial court ordered the plaintiff in a medical-malpractice case to execute an unconditional medical waiver and permit ex parte conferences by the defendants with any medical provider of the plaintiff. Scott, 704 So. 2d at 999. On interlocutory appeal from the trial court’s order, the Scott Court addressed “two interrelated questions of law[,]” which were framed as “(1) the scope of the medical waiver as contemplated by Mississippi Rule of Evidence 503 and (2) whether or not ex parte contacts with medical providers are permissible under the rules of discovery in the Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure.” Id. at 1000.

¶21. The Scott Court recognized that a “significant argument about ex parte interviews revolves around who is the holder of the privilege.” Id. at 1004. Before answering the question of how or if the ex parte rule would apply in the context of a will contest, the Court must determine who holds the medical privilege of the testator in a will contest. One of the two permitted methods stated by the Scott Court for obtaining relevant medical information ex parte from a treating physician is through “voluntary consensual disclosure by the patient who is the holder of the privilege.” Id. at 1007. Here, the patient is deceased, so consent would have to be obtained from whoever holds the privilege of the deceased. We hold that in the instant case both parties were personal representatives of the deceased and, therefore, under either the rule or the statute, no prohibited ex parte contact occurred. Because the result is the same whether we employ the rule or the statute, we do not today address any argument or disseminate any holding addressing which governs over the other.

¶22. Mississippi Code Section 13-1-21(1) provides:

(1) All communications made to a physician, osteopath, dentist, hospital, nurse, pharmacist, podiatrist, optometrist or chiropractor by a patient under his charge or by one seeking professional advice are hereby declared to be privileged, and such party shall not be required to disclose the same in any legal proceeding except at the instance of the patient or, in case of the death of the patient, at the instance of his personal representative or legal heirs in case there be no personal representative, or except, if the validity of the will of the decedent is in question, at the instance of the personal representative or any of the legal heirs or any contestant or proponent of the will. (Emphasis added.)

¶23. Under Section 13-1-21(1), “the personal representative or any of the legal heirs or any contestant or proponent of the will” may waive the medical privilege. However, Rule 503(c) identifies the “personal representative” only as an individual who may waive the general medical privilege of a deceased patient. Rule 503(c) [Fn omitted] states:

(c) Who May Claim the Privilege. The privilege may be claimed by the patient, his guardian or conservator, or the personal representative of a deceased patient. The person who was the physician or psychotherapist at the time of the communication is presumed to have the authority to claim the privilege but only on behalf of the patient. Miss. R. Evid. 503(c).

¶24. Under Rule 503(c), a deceased patient’s “personal representative” may claim the medical privilege. Black’s Law Dictionary defines a “personal representative” as: “Someone who manages the legal affairs of another because of incapacity or death, such as the executor of an estate. Technically, an executor is a personal representative named in a will, while an administrator is a personal representative not named in a will.” Personal representative, Black’s Law Dictionary (10th ed. 2014).

¶25. Katherine unequivocally stated in her 2005 will: “I hereby nominate, constitute, and appoint my nephew, Anthony Lobred, Executor of this my Last Will and Testament and I authorize and empower my said Executor to do any and all things which in his opinion are necessary to complete the administration and settlement of my estate, including full right, power and authority, without the necessity of obtaining an order from any Court and upon such terms and conditions as my said Executor shall deem best for the settlement of my estate, to bargain, sell at public or private sale[,] convey, transfer, deed, mortgage, lease, exchange, pledge, manage and deal with any and all property belonging to my estate.” Here, Lobred carried out his duty as Katherine’s personal representative by probating her 2005 will as muniment of title. Katherine’s 2012 will contained a similar provision designating Larry as executor. As a result, both Lobred and Larry hold the general medical privilege as Katherine’s “personal representative” under the plain language of Rule 503(b).

¶26. Lobred argues that there is no conflict because Rule 503 is silent regarding will contests, whereas Section 13-1-21(1) specifically addresses the medical privilege in the context of will contests and provides rights not otherwise provided for by the rules of evidence. While we agree with the result urged by Lobred, we disagree that the result stems only from the combination of the statute and the silence of the rule. Rather, because Rule 503 provides that the personal representative may claim the privilege on behalf of a deceased person, and in Scott we held that the party who may claim the privilege may waive the privilege, it is not the silence of Rule 503 but its content that undergirds our holding.

¶27. Section 13-1-21(1), on the other hand, specifically addresses waiver of the medical privilege in the context of a will contest. Under both Rule 503 and Section 13-1-21(1), the medical privilege belongs to both Lyons and Lobred. Under Section 13-1-21(1), the medical privilege may be waived by the personal representative, any legal heir, or any proponent or contestant of a will. Thus, Section 13-1-21(1) authorizes Lobred to waive the entire medical privilege as a personal representative and contestant of the 2012 will. Because Rule 503(c) and Section 13-1-21(1) both authorize Lobred to waive the entire privilege, the ex parte rule of Rule 503(f) does not operate to bar his attorney from speaking alone with the physician witness.

Death of the Right to Renounce

May 9, 2017 § 2 Comments

In February, 1966, J.B. Ratliff executed a will that left his wife, Mavis, a life estate in an undivided one-half interest in his property, and bequeathed the residuary to a daughter by a prior marriage.

On October 2, 1966, J.B. shot Mavis in the head and then shot himself in the head. He died instantly, and Mavis died shortly thereafter.

Letters testamentary were issued in J.B.’s estate, and letters of administration were issued in Mavis’s estate. The administrator in Mavis’s estate sought court approval to file a renunciation in J.B.’s estate, which was granted. Following a hearing, the chancellor in J.B.’s estate denied the renunciation, and the administrator of Mavis’s estate appealed.

In Jenkins v. Borodofsky, 211 So.2d 874, 875 (Miss. 1968), the MSSC affirmed:

There is only one issue to be decided in this appeal. Does the personal representative of a deceased spouse have the right to renounce the will of a predeceased spouse under Mississippi Code 1942 Annotated section 668 (1956), or is the privilege one which must be invoked personally by the surviving spouse during her lifetime?

This issue has been before this Court on a prior occasion in the case of Estate of Mullins v. Estate of Mullins, 239 Miss. 751, 125 So.2d 93 (1960). In that case we said:

In short, the right of a beneficiary to accept or renounce provisions of a will is a personal privilege which must be exercised by him during his lifetime and may not, after his death, be undertaken by his personal representative, even where death occurs prior to the expiration of the statutory period for the election. (239 Miss. at 755, 125 So.2d at 95.)

That, then, would seem to be that, except that the high court, in a more courtly era (no pun intended), tried to soften the blow:

The excellent, skillfully written briefs of appellant merit commendation, but they do not justify our modifying the rule of law set out in Mississippi Code 1942 Annotated section 668 (1956). Such is a prerogative of the legislature only and therefore should not be exercised by the judiciary. Mississippi can do as Tennessee has done and through its legislature enact a statute which would permit that which appellant earnestly urges here. Tennessee’s statute permits an election after the survivor’s death, as discussed in 83 A.L.R.2d 1073 (1962):

As already indicated, the right of election in the surviving spouse is purely statutory and a particular statute may permit an election to be made after the survivor’s death.

The statute in question in Hamilton Nat. Bank vs. Haynes (1943) 180 Tenn. 247, 174 S.W.2d 39 empowered the county court, on application of the personal representative of the surviving spouse, to declare a ‘dissent from the will’ in the event of the death of such survivor before the period allowed for the dissent had expired. (83 A.L.R.2d at 1082.)

Statutes in derogation of common law must be strictly construed, as we well know, and probate is a wholly statutory creature. The court went on to address appellant’s equitable estoppel argument:

Equitable estoppel does not and cannot authorize the exercise of a personal right which terminates with the death of a spouse. Appellee concedes that had J. B. Ratliff lived he would have been estopped from inheriting from his wife’s estate under the provisions of Mississippi Code 1942 Annotated sections 479 and 672 (1956). Appellant, however, does not seek to estop J. B. Ratliff. It is his estate, or more specifically his only daughter, Mrs. Betty Jane Ratliff Burrell, whom appellant seeks to estop. Appellant seeks to have Mrs. Burrell vicariously suffer the penalties which her father would have suffered had he survived his wife after killing her. Certainly Mr. Ratliff’s daughter, Mrs. Burrell, is guilty of no acts which would authorize and allow an equitable estoppel of her.

The court winds up with a flourish, invoking Les Misérables and the exquisitely miserable Inspector Javert:

In conclusion, we agree with appellant that Inspector Javert’s devotion to an immutable and inexorable code of laws which categorically demanded and required punishment is not the basic concept of law in this state. In passing, it was Javert’s fanatical dedication to his adamant belief which ultimately caused his self-destruction. The enactment, modification or repeal of laws, wise or foolish, is a problem for the legislature of this state. This Court has no authority in this regard.

Voilà, mes amis. So, if the spouse wishes to renounce, he or she must do so him- or herself personally “within ninety (90) days after probate” per MCA 91-5-25, unless under some legal disability for which the time is extended. It is a personal right that dies with the one holding it, and it may not be exercised later by her estate.

An attorney in this area posed an interesting, closely-related, question: In an estate opened in the 1980’s, surviving wife timely filed a renunciation of her deceased spouse’s will that was never brought to hearing. Now the renouncing wife has died. Her renunciation was timely filed and the estate has never been closed. Did her right of renunciation die with her, or did her filing open the door for her estate now to pursue it? If it survived, are further proceedings now barred by laches?

 

An Acknowledgment is not an Oath, and Vice Versa

November 7, 2016 § 2 Comments

This is an acknowledgment:

Personally appeared before me, the undersigned authority in and for the said county and state, on this the 4th day of October, 2016, within my jurisdiction, the within-named Joe Doe, who acknowledged that he executed the above and foregoing instrument.  (MCA 89-3-7)

This is an oath:

Personally appeared before me, the undersigned authority in and for the said county and state, Jane Doe, who, after by me being first duly sworn, stated on oath that the matters and things set forth in the foregoing Petition are true and correct as therein stated.

Each serves an important function, but their functions are entirely different, and they are not interchangeable.

If you have to file an affidavit, such as an affidavit of known creditors, or an affidavit of diligent inquiry for publication process, or if you must file a sworn pleading in an estate, an acknowledgment simply will not do the job. All of those call for swearing on the part of the maker, and there is no swearing in an acknowledgment.

But, you may say, “It’s notarized; that should do it, right?” Wrong. All the notary is doing is witnessing. In one instance, she is witnessing a signature (acknowledgment). In the other she is administering and recording an oath. It’s two distinctly different things.

I am bringing this to your attention because I have had to send lawyers scurrying back to the staring line when I look at the document that is styled “Affidavit,” which requires an oath, but on closer examination includes only an acknowledgment. Without a swearing, it’s not an affidavit.

Make sure your office staff understands the difference and selects the correct one to meet the function. It can save you time, money, and embarrassment.

A Caveat for Affidavits of Known Creditors

July 26, 2016 § 2 Comments

Your client is going to be appointed executor of an estate. So it makes perfect sense that, when he comes in to sign the petition, at the same time you have him sign the oath, affidavit of known creditors, and notices to those known creditors. Why should he have to make more than one trip to your office, right? Then, after the order appointing him is signed by the judge, you go ahead and file the pre-signed oath, affidavit, and notices.

But is that effective? Does it comply with the statute?

As far as the oath is concerned, I see no problem. The oath is taken in his capacity as an individual, and is only effective once the order appointing him is signed by the judge and the oath is thereafter filed.

But the notice and affidavit requirements are a different matter. MCA 91-7-45(1) specifically requires the “executor or administrator” to make reasonable and diligent efforts to identify and give notice to creditors. Only the executor or administrator can do this function, and there is no executor or administrator until the judge signs the appointing order, and a bond (if required) and oath are filed.

Likewise, MCA 91-7-45(2) requires the “executor or administrator” to file the affidavit of known creditors that must be on file before the Notice to Creditors is published. Only the executor or administrator can do this. Signing the affidavit before one is appointed and qualified is not signing in the capacity of executor or administrator.

I am not aware of any case law specifically addressing these points, but the many cases construing probate statutes are emphatic that the specific language of the statutes control, and that substantial or nominal compliance is not enough.

Another post discussing the right way and order to do the notice and affidavit is here.

Rules of Reformation

March 15, 2016 § Leave a comment

A 1979 deed included the language that “Grantee herein retains all mineral rights on said land and property.”

After Michael and Amy Ward had entered into a gas, oil, and mineral lease in 2007, they discovered to their chagrin that the royalties they had contracted for were not being paid to them, but rather to Carolyn Harrell, a successor in title to the grantor of the 1979 deed. The Wards were successors in title to the grantees.

The Wards filed suit to quiet and confirm and remove cloud from title, and to recover the payments made to Harrell. Harrell counterclaimed to remove cloud, and to cancel the Wards’ mineral lease.

At trial, the Wards argued that the 1979 deed must be construed according to its plain meaning. Harrell countered that the 1979 deed should be reformed to state that Grantor retains, due to mutual mistake and scrivener’s error. The chancellor applied the three-tiered rules of contract construction of an ambiguous instrument set out in Pursue Energy Corp. v. Perkins, 558 So.2d 349, 352-53 (Miss. 1990). The Wards appealed.

In Ward v. Harrell, handed down February 23, 2016, the COA affirmed the chancellor, holding that, although the trial court applied the wrong legal standard, it reached the correct result. Judge Lee writing for the court, distinguished between contract construction and reformation:

¶13. In reforming the 1979 warranty deed, it appears that the chancellor relied solely on Pursue Energy Corp. v. Perkins, 558 So. 2d 349 (Miss. 1990). In that case, our supreme court set out a three-tiered approach for construing and interpreting written instruments when an ambiguity exists. [Fn 5] Id. at 351-53.

[Fn 5] (1) The court is to look solely to the language contained within the “four corners” of the instrument; (2) if the language within the instrument’s “four corners” is ambiguous, the court applies the relevant canons of construction in a discretionary manner; and (3) if the intent of the parties is still unknown, the court looks to extrinsic evidence. Pursue Energy Corp. v. Perkins, 558 So. 2d 349, 352-53 (Miss. 1990).

¶14. However, contract construction, or interpretation, is distinguishable from contract reformation. Essentially, reformation is a remedy—the changing of words—to a contract- formation defense. In contrast, rules of construction, or interpretation, do not change the actual words of the contract but determine the meaning of those words.

¶15. Although an ambiguous deed may be reformed, [Fn 6] when a deed is unambiguous, “the party asserting reformation must prove (1) a mistake on the part of both parties; or (2) a mistake on the part of one party with fraud or inequitable conduct on the part of the other party; or (3) an error on the part of the scrivener.” In re Estate of Summerlin, 989 So. 2d 466, 480 (¶47) (Miss. Ct. App. 2008) (quoting Bacot v. Duby, 724 So. 2d 410, 417 (¶35) (Miss. Ct. App. 1998)). “Moreover, the mistake must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.” Id.

[Fn 6] Estate of DeLoach v. DeLoach, 873 So. 2d 146, 150 (¶14) (Miss. Ct. App. 2004).

¶16. Here, we do not find the language at issue in the 1979 warranty deed to be ambiguous. See Cypress Springs LLC v. Charles Donald Pulpwood Inc., 161 So. 3d 1100, 1104 (¶13) (Miss. Ct. App. 2015) (finding an instrument is ambiguous if one or more terms or provisions are susceptible to more than one reasonable meaning). Therefore, the chancellor’s reliance on the standard set forth in Pursue Energy Corp. was erroneous. See 17A C.J.S. Contracts § 386 (2011) (The “[r]ules of construction may be used only where the language of the contract, or a portion of it, is ambiguous.”).

¶17. As such, we do not give deference to the chancellor’s findings of fact and conclusions of law. See Brooks [v. Brooks], 652 So. 2d [1113,] at 1118 [(Miss. 1995)]. Instead, we review the record de novo. See id.

The court went on to find that there was a scrivener’s error because only a grantor can make a reservation out of the estate granted (citing Thornhill v. Ford, 213 Miss. 49, 56 So.2d 23,29 (1952), and MCA 27-31-77.

The main things to take away here are that: (1) there are specific rules governing reformation of a deed; and (2) the burden of proof is beyond a reasonable doubt.

 

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