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Bravata v. Micomonaco

A-2828-06T2 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2008) (Unpublished)

DEEDS; ATTORNEYS FEES — Where it can be shown that one person, such as a child, exerted undue influence over another, such a parent, to transfer property as a gift, the transfer of title can be nullified, but absent a breach of fiduciary duty or a claim against a trustee or executor who is found to have exerted the undue influence, an award of attorneys fees is improper.

Immigrant parents had five children, a house, a car, and a bank account. The account largely contained proceeds from the sale of a property. Both parents required care because they were elderly and ill. According to the father’s will, the house was to be left to all five children, in equal shares. However, it was known to family members that those who cared for the parents were to receive the house after they died. One of the daughters offered to care for her physically incapacitated mentally incompetent mother, and expected to receive the house in exchange. The father refused to promise her the house. He subsequently became ill and needed hospitalization. So, the daughter brought her mother back to her own home to care for her. After the father came home from the hospital, his daughter told him that she would stop caring for her mother if she did not get the house. The daughter then agreed to care for her mother if her father attached a document to a deed giving her the house. The father signed the document under the belief that his daughter would take care of him and her mother, and that his brother would hold the document which was not to be recorded until after his death.

Soon afterwards, a deed was executed creating a life estate in the house for him to allow him to remain in the house until his death. The father continued to pay the taxes and expenses for the house and he was under the impression that he held title to it. He later found out, through his accountant, that the house was no longer under his name. Following a dispute between the father and his daughter over how his money was to be allocated, his daughter brought her mother back to the house and left her mother, wheelchair bound and incapacitated, on the front steps. Also, the father, who had an out-of-state driver’s license, purchased a car but since he was unable to obtain an in-state driver’s license or insurance, put the car in the name of his daughter’s husband even though he continued to pay for the expenses related to the car. The daughter occasionally used the car and, after she left her mother at the house, refused to return it to her father.

The parents sued their daughter to have the title transfers of the house and car nullified and also sought to collect one half of their legal expenses. After hearing the testimony of the parties and witnesses, the lower court nullified the transfer of title to both the house and the car and found that neither parent was aware that they were transferring ownership of either, and that they had signed the documents at the behest of their daughter. The lower court also found that they had signed the documents without the benefit of their own attorney and that their daughter had exerted undue influence on them when they signed the documents. The transfer of the house, as a gift, was found to be improvident because it was their largest asset. The lower court also awarded the parents their request for one half of their legal expenses.

On appeal, the Appellate Division affirmed the lower court’s nullification of the transfer of the house and found that it was supported by the evidence. On the other hand, it reversed the award of legal expenses because they are only allowable if specifically authorized by statute, court rule or pursuant to the terms of a contract. The Court pointed out that the only exception was for claims against attorneys for malpractice, misconduct or breach of fiduciary duty, and for claims against a trustee or executor who was found to exert undue influence. It found that since the daughter was not an attorney, trustee, or executor, the exception did not apply.

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