Tuesday, January 22, 2019
Court of Appeal:
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The use of the term “grant” in a trust transfer deed was not explicit enough to transmute a man’s community property interest in a house to his wife’s separate property under the applicable statutory rule, the Court of Appeal for this district has declared.
The opinion, certified for publication Friday after initial filing Dec. 20, was written by Justice Anne H. Egerton of Div. Three.
The wife in the case, Ida Sarajian, received a 48 percent interest in a Glendale residential property on Avonoak Terrace from her mother in 1996. By 2001, Sarajian, her mother, and Saragian’s then-husband, Richard Begian, shared an interest in the property.
In 2006, for what Begian claimed were “estate planning” purposes, the parties executed a “Trust Transfer Deed” which contained the following language:
“FOR NO CONSIDERATION, GRANTORS ROSE SARAJIAN, a Widow, and IDA SARAJIAN and RICHARD BEGIAN, Wife and Husband, all as joint tenants, hereby GRANT to IDA SARAJIAN, the following real property [legal description of Avonoak].”
In a bifurcated proceeding in the couple’s marital dissolution action, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Theresa Traber decided that the Avonoak residence was separate property.
Family Code §852(a) provides:
“A transmutation of real or personal property is not valid unless made in writing by an express declaration that is made, joined in, consented to, or accepted by the spouse whose interest in the property is adversely affected.”
Traber focused on the term “grant” in the 2006 deed. She agreed with Sarajian’s contention that the term is historically used to transfer interest in real property, and that the use of the word comported with §852(a)’s requirement for an express declaration.
She also noted that the deed had described the transfer as a “bonafide gift,” and that despite being titled a “Trust Transfer Deed” it “transfers Avonoak to [Ida Sarajian], not to any trust, and there is no trust identified on the face of the document.”
Egerton noted that while §852(a)’s “express declaration” need not use any particular term, it must facially represent the intended transmutation of the property’s character without consulting extrinsic evidence.
While she agreed with Sarajian that “grant” is used to transfer real property, she distinguished cases where the granting spouse had been more explicit in intent than the parties’ 2006 deed. In prior cases, she noted, the courts had found transferred real property to be separate where “grant” was accompanied by more specific terms, such as the conveyance of a property into joint tenancy.
She added that “Richard’s mere use of the word ‘grant’ does not dictate a definite conclusion about what interest in Avonoak he meant to convey to Ida….Richard’s use of the word ‘grant’ is ambiguous, because the word only establishes his intention to transfer an interest in real property, ‘without specifying what interest was to be transferred.’…”
Deed’s Title Relevant
The jurist continued:
“The reference to a ‘Trust Transfer’ in the deed’s title compounds this ambiguity, because it suggests, as Richard maintains, that the conveyance to Ida may have been made for the purpose of placing the property into a trust, and not with the intention to change its marital character or ownership….Ida argues the reference to a trust transfer should raise no concern, because under established principles of contract and statutory construction a ‘title’ or ‘label in a legal document’ is ‘not controlling’ of its effect, and because the body of the deed ‘does not mention any trust.’ We are not persuaded.
“While it may be that a title or label is not ‘controlling’ where specific provisions of the writing dictate a definite interpretation, it is not true that the characterization of a transfer in a deed’s title is irrelevant to the express declaration inquiry….Absent an unambiguous statement that the transfer would change the character or ownership of Avonoak, the document’s title makes it reasonable to entertain the possibility that Richard executed the deed for the purpose of making only a ‘Trust Transfer.’ ”
The case is In re Marriage of Begian & Sarajian, B278316.
Patrick Baghdaserians of the Law Offices of Donald P. Schweitzer in Pasadena and Garrett C. Dailey of Oakland represented Begian. Honey K. Amado of Beverly Hills and James A. Karagianides of West Hollywood were counsel for Sarajian.
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