Thursday, September 2, 2010
C.A.: Statute of Limitations Negates Promise of House to Neighbor
Equities Favor Claimant, but Law Favors ‘Soulless Corporation,’ Court Says
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
An agreement by a Colton resident to leave his home to a neighbor who was preparing his meals, doing his shopping, visiting him every day, and performing other services cannot be enforced because no action was filed within a year of the man’s death, the Fourth District Court of Appeal has ruled.
While the agreement between Paul Ziegler and Richard LaQue was unquestionably valid, LaQue’s claim to Ziegler’s house is barred by the statute of limitations, although its operation is “sadly inequitable” in this case, Justice Betty Richli wrote Tuesday for Div. Two.
The prevailing claim to the house, Richli concluded, is that of W.C. Cox and Company, “a soulless corporation” based in Tucson, Ariz. that located nine cousins of Ziegler’s in Germany and brought a claim as their attorney-in-fact. In referring to the heir finder as soulless, Richli explained in a footnote, she was using the word literally and did “not mean to imply that Cox’s employees are not caring people or that they do not provide a valuable service.”
Ziegler, a retired schoolteacher who suffered from asthma, befriended LaQue and his wife after they rented the house next door in 2000, according to testimony. Ziegler had grown up in his home.
About six months after moving in, LaQue started doing Ziegler’s plumbing and providing him with other services. Ziegler told the LaQues he had no relatives, only some friends who visited on rare occasions.
In 2003 or 2004, they recalled, Ziegler started telling the LaQues he wanted them to have his house after he died because “his mom and dad worked so hard” to acquire it and he wanted it to go to someone who would take care of it, rather than the government. When Ziegler’s health began to deteriorate in 2005, the LaQues began bringing him meals and cleaning his house, and when he spent about two weeks in the hospital, Richard LaQue visited him every day.
When he returned home from the hospital, according to the testimony, Ziegler stopped going out at all, and became more dependent on the LaQues. In November 2005, he asked the LaQues, along with a visitor of theirs, to write out and witness an agreement, which he signed, giving Richard LaQue the house “for the exchange of my care and daily meals,” the document to “be immediately active if and when I no longer can reside in my home due to death.”
When Ziegler was hospitalized again, the LaQues cleaned out dust and mildew they thought might be exacerbating his condition, replaced the old shag carpet with linoleum, and did painting and other work in the house.
Ziegler died in the hospital in January 2006 at age 60. LaQue arranged for a headstone, and in March he and his wife moved into the house.
The public administrator filed a probate petition in September 2006 and was appointed administrator. Cox—whose standing was unchallenged, Richli noted—appeared as attorney-in-fact for the German nationals, who were identified as first cousins, or descendants of first cousins, through Ziegler’s maternal grandparents.
About one year and three weeks after Ziegler died, LaQue filed a creditor’s claim for more than $9,000, representing the value of his services in quantum meruit, and an alternative claim for the estimated value of the house, more than $318,000, on a contract theory.
Trial Court Ruling
Cox, LaQue, and the public administrator all filed petitions to determine the ownership of the house. San Bernardino Superior Court Judge J. Michael Welch held a combined trial on the petitions and ruled that LaQue’s claim to the house was not barred by Code of Civil Procedure Sec. 366.3, and ordered the property conveyed to him.
The relevant part of the statute says:
“If a person has a claim that arises from a promise or agreement with a decedent to distribution from an estate or trust or under another instrument, . . . an action to enforce the claim to distribution may be commenced within one year after the date of death, and the limitations period that would have been applicable does not apply.”
Welch reasoned that since the parties had a contract that “could only be performed by Ziegler upon his death,” and the contract was not breached, the statute of limitations had not been triggered.
Richli, however, said there is no difference between a claim for breach of a contract that is to be performed upon death and a claim to distribution from an estate. No matter how LaQue’s claim is characterized, she said, it is time-barred.
The legislative history, she explained, establishes that the intent of the statute was to establish a uniform limitations period with respect to claims arising from purported contracts to make a will or to distribute property upon death, and to have such claims brought within the time in which estate administration would normally take place.
It is also clear, Richli said, that the Legislature—contrary to the usual probate context—intended “distribution” to include creditor’s claims, at least when based on a contract to make a will or a claim, such as LaQue’s, which “is indistinguishable from a claim on a contract to make a will.”
The justice went on to say that LaQue’s quantum meruit claim is barred by Sec. 366.2, which establishes the same one-year limitations period for claims that could have been brought against the decedent during his lifetime.
The case is Estate of Ziegler, E048555.
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