Monday, April 11, 2011
C.A. Clarifies Time Limit for Suit to Enforce Decedent’s Promise
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
This district’s Court of Appeal on Friday ruled that a local man’s claim that his deceased girlfriend had promised him a life estate in the house they had shared was time-barred, unless the woman’s daughters were found to have induced him to forbear filing suit.
Div. One ruled that Hugh J. McMackin’s suit was an action to enforce a claim for distribution from an estate and subject to a one-year statute of limitations.
McMackin lived with Patricia Lyn McGinness in her home from 1987 until McGinness died intestate in 2004. Although McMackin was never added to the title on the home, he continued to occupy it after McGinness’s death.
McGinness’s daughters, Kimberly Frost and Kellian Ehrheart, opened probate of their mother’s estate in February 2008. Ehrheart, who was executrix of the estate, subsequently delivered a lease agreement for the home to McMackin.
After McMackin failed to sign the agreement, Ehrheart served him with a 60-day notice to quit the premises. McMackin then filed an ex parte application for a temporary restraining order preventing his eviction, claiming that he possessed a life estate in the home based on a promise made by McGinness that he would be entitled to reside in the home for the rest of his life “in consideration of their life together [and] their mutual care and companionship.”
No Transfer of Interest
Ehrheart opposed McMackin’s application and demurred to the complaint, contending her mother had never transferred any interest in the home, which was the sole property of McGinness. She said McMackin had never mentioned that he thought he had a life estate in the home prior to retaining counsel in May 2009.
She claimed insurance funds had been provided to McMackin to establish bank accounts for Frost’s and Ehrheart’s sons’ educations, and that he had promised to release those funds after Ehrheart delivered a lease to him for the house.
Ehrheart further asserted that she had relied on McMackin, who was a sophisticated businessman, for advice after her mother’s death, and he had incorrectly advised her not to open probate because the mortgage lender for the house would then be able to call the loan due and payable.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Richard B. Wolfe granted the preliminary injunction, finding the bar of the statute of frauds did not apply to McMackin’s oral agreement with McGinness and the one-year limitations period of Code of Civil Procedure Sec. 366.3 was inapplicable because McMackin was “not making a ‘claim’ ” as defined by Probate Code Sec. 9000(a), which provides that a “claim” is a “demand for payment.”
Writing for the appellate court, Presiding Justice Robert M. Mallano disagreed, explaining that a lawsuit based on a decedent’s promise to leave her cohabitant a life estate in a home, “is an action to enforce a claim that arises from a promise or agreement with a decedent for distribution from an estate and, thus, is governed by section 366.3.”
Sec. 366.3 states that a person who “has a claim that arises from a promise or agreement with a decedent to distribution from an estate or trust or under another instrument, whether the promise or agreement was made orally or in writing,” must bring an action to enforce that claim within one year after the date of death.
Mallano cited Estate of Ziegler (2010) 187 Cal.App.4th 1357 and Stewart v. Seward (2007) 148 Cal.App.4th 1513—which both held promises by a decedent to transfer property upon death were controlled by Sec. 366.3’s statute of limitations—as support for his construction of the term “claim.”
Since the “gravamen of the complaint is McGinness’s promise to give McMackin a life estate in the home at her death,” Mallano reasoned “McMackin’s claim for a life estate arises from a decedent’s promise of a distribution from an estate, and, accordingly, is a claim for distribution within the meaning of section 366.3.”
Depending upon the circumstances of a case, however, Mallano said, the doctrine of equitable estoppel may preclude the assertion of Sec. 366.2 as a defense if the defendant induced the plaintiff into forbearing to file suit within the limitations period.
The justice did not address whether the evidence at trial supported application of the doctrine against Ehrheart since the issue at oral argument was whether equitable estoppel could apply as a matter of law.
Mallano concluded that because McMackin did not assert his claim to a life estate in the home in any manner until he filed his complaint six years after McGinness’s death, McMackin’s action was untimely unless a finder of fact determines equitable estoppel precludes application of the one-year limitations period.
Justices Frances Rothschild and Victoria G. Chaney joined Mallano in his decision.
McMackin was represented by Calabasas attorney Randy S. Snyder while Ellen K. Wolf and Richard Seegman of the Wolf Group L.A. were counsel for Ehrheart.
The case is McMackin v. Ehrheart, 11 S.O.S. 1819.
Copyright 2011, Metropolitan News Company