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Mitchell v. Brooks

Supreme Court of Alabama

March 22, 2019

Teresa Elizabeth Mitchell and Steve E. Allen, as personal representatives of the Estate of Gayron E. Brooks, deceased
David A. Brooks

          Appeal from Marshall Circuit Court (CV-16-900251)

          MITCHELL, Justice.

         This case contests the validity of a property deed that was executed by Gayron E. Brooks in the weeks before her death from lung cancer. The deed conveyed her house in Boaz to her husband of 18 years, David A. Brooks. Following Gayron's death, her adult children, Teresa Elizabeth Mitchell and Steve E. Allen, as personal representatives of Gayron's estate, sued David in the Marshall Circuit Court. Teresa and Steve alleged, among other things, that David held a dominant position over Gayron and that he had unduly influenced her to sign the deed.

         After a four-day nonjury trial, the trial court entered a judgment in favor of David. This appeal followed. For the reasons discussed below, we affirm the judgment.

         Facts and Procedural History

         Teresa and Steve are Gayron's only children, both from her first marriage. In April 1996 -- some time after her first marriage had ended -- Gayron purchased a house and approximately nine acres in Boaz that she titled solely in her name. Gayron thereafter used the Boaz house as her primary residence.

         On April 11, 1997, Gayron married David. They thereafter resided in the Boaz house together until Gayron's death. A prenuptial agreement executed by Gayron and David provided that all real or personal property owned by either party before the marriage was to remain his or her separate property. The prenuptial agreement also specifically provided that the parties did not intend for the agreement "to limit or restrict in any way the right and power to receive any such transfer or conveyance from the other."

         In January 2001, Gayron executed a will giving David the right to live in the Boaz house following her death until such time as he remarried or otherwise began living with another woman; at that time, or upon David's death, the Boaz house would become the property of Teresa and Steve. In November 2007, Gayron had a different attorney prepare a draft of a new will that contained a substantially similar provision, giving David a limited right to live in the Boaz house following her death. Gayron, however, never executed that will.

         On May 14, 2015, Gayron was diagnosed with end-stage lung cancer and given a prognosis of approximately six months to live. She elected not to pursue traditional chemotherapy and radiation treatments and instead pursued alternative treatments at a clinic in Mexico. She also began estate planning in earnest and decided to sell the successful mulch business that she owned and at which David worked. In approximately July 2015, David located a buyer willing to pay $1, 425, 000 for the business. Gayron, however, decided instead to sell the business to Steve for $1, 000, 000, to be paid in monthly installments. David testified that it was around this same time that Gayron separately told both Steve and him that David would receive the Boaz house after her death.[1]

         On July 27, 2015, Gayron, upon the recommendation of her accountant Jerry Rowe, met with Charles Hare, an attorney who had previously assisted her with legal matters related to the mulch business. Hare testified that Gayron told him at that meeting that she wanted to execute a new will but that she did not know yet what dispositions she wanted to make. Ultimately, Hare stated, they agreed that Gayron would revoke the January 2001 will that day -- which she did -- and that she would finalize and execute a new will after she returned from an upcoming trip to Mexico.

         Gayron met with Hare again in mid-September 2015. Rowe, David, and Steve were also at this meeting. Both Hare and Rowe testified at trial that Gayron stated during this meeting that she wanted David to have the Boaz house. They both stated, however, that Gayron still was not ready to finalize her estate arrangements. Hare testified that in all of his conversations with Gayron she consistently said that "she wanted to be fair to David" but that she did not want her assets to eventually go to his children from a previous marriage. Hare also testified that Gayron generally did not like to talk about estate planning when David was present and that, when David was around, she would steer the conversation toward business matters.

         Teresa testified that, around this same mid-September time frame, she was also having discussions with Gayron about Gayron's estate planning and that Gayron would sometimes instruct Teresa to write notes regarding their conversations. Teresa stated that at other times she would write notes of her own accord following her discussions with Gayron. In one undated note, which Teresa said was written during this time frame and which Teresa captioned, "Notes from Teresa to Mom," Teresa wrote: "If David is going to get the house (& land it sits on) please have it put in writing that Steve or I get first chance at buying it if he decides to sell it." In another undated note, which Teresa said was written at this same approximate time, Teresa wrote: "Mom said if David gets home you get 17 acres deeded to you."[2] Yet another note, which Teresa remembered writing during this time at Gayron's direction, stated: "Mom wants David to have: 1. House & land it sits on [and] 2. Land on Legion Rd (16 acres)." In a final note, which Teresa stated was probably written closer to the end of September, Teresa wrote that David had told Gayron that he did not want the Boaz house because of the upkeep associated with the property; that Gayron was relieved and had stated that she would instead give the house to Teresa; and that David was satisfied with her giving the house to Teresa. At trial, David denied ever telling Gayron that he did not want the Boaz house.

         Beginning in September 2015, Gayron started receiving in-home visits from hospice. Hospice records from this period show that Gayron repeatedly expressed agitation regarding her estate planning and the discord it was causing within her family. On September 28, 2015, Gayron discussed her concerns with Amanda Hollingsworth, a hospice social worker, during a private meeting. Hollingsworth's notes from that meeting indicate that Gayron was worried about what she was going to do with her estate and whether she was going "to ruin her family by leaving them the amount of money that she would be leaving them." Hollingsworth further noted that Gayron stated that "she did not mind that her husband have the house, but she did not want him to have all the land." Hollingsworth wrote that she encouraged Gayron to speak with an attorney. Gayron told Hollingsworth that she would be meeting with Hare soon.

         Subsequently, on October 1, 2015, Gayron went to Hare's office with Teresa and Steve to finalize a new will. Hare testified that they talked about her assets and that Gayron again expressed that she wanted to take care of David but that she did not want her assets ultimately to go to David's children. Hare testified that, after much discussion about the Boaz house, Gayron eventually decided that she would let David live in the house for one year after her death and that Teresa and Steve would take ownership of the house after the expiration of that one-year period.[3] In accordance with Gayron's desire, Hare prepared a will providing that, upon Gayron's death, David would receive "the right to live in and enjoy [the Boaz house] for a period of one (1) year after [Gayron's] death," so long as he agreed to pay the necessary taxes and insurance premiums and to reasonably maintain the property during that year. Gayron executed the new will that same day.

         Hare, Teresa, and Steve all testified at trial that Gayron became emotional after executing the new will and that she did not want to go home to David but wished to check into the hospice facility.[4] Teresa accordingly took Gayron to the hospice facility, where Gayron was admitted. Hospice records indicate that Gayron told Hollingsworth at that time that she had changed her will and that she was afraid that David would be upset when he found out. Gayron explained to Hollingsworth that she just wanted to "stay for a few days to allow him to calm down." Gayron also told Hollingsworth that she did not want David to visit but that he could receive information about her condition.

         Notwithstanding Gayron's desire to avoid speaking with David, Hollingsworth encouraged Gayron to let David know that she was all right. David testified that Gayron, in fact, telephoned him later that night and told him that she had been to see Hare and that she was at the hospice facility. Gayron eventually allowed David to visit, and, on October 6, 2015, she was discharged and David took her home. David testified that he did not thereafter attempt to discuss with Gayron her October 1 meeting with Hare because he assumed any changes she had made to her estate plan were in accordance with her previously expressed wishes, including her alleged desire for him to receive the Boaz house.

         For the next month, David continued to care for Gayron at their home, administering her various medications and assisting her with meals and other aspects of daily living. Hospice personnel continued to make regular home visits at least weekly, and their records contain no indication that David mistreated Gayron. One nurse who regularly visited, in fact, testified that David was an "excellent" caregiver. Throughout October, Gayron's condition was relatively stable and the discord within the family lessened to some degree.

         On the night of November 4, 2015, however, Teresa and Steve visited Gayron and David and an argument ensued. At trial, Teresa acknowledged that she was upset with David that night and that Gayron, at some point during the argument, defended David, saying that he had been good to her. David testified that, after Teresa and Steve left, Gayron was still emotional and that she eventually volunteered to him that he was not going to like what was in her will. David stated that, when he asked Gayron what she meant, she told him for the first time that he was not getting the Boaz house. He then stated that he told her that he thought she wanted him to have the house and that she replied that she did.

         The next day, November 5, 2015, David contacted a local attorney, George Barnett, to talk about, as David described it in an affidavit, "Gayron having made a will that did not reflect what she had stated on several occasions were her intentions of giving me the house." Barnett advised David that, if Gayron wished to leave him the Boaz house but her will did not reflect that wish, she could transfer the house to him by deed instead. Barnett advised David to discuss that possibility with Gayron. David stated that Gayron agreed that she wanted to transfer the Boaz house to him by deed and told him to have Barnett make the necessary arrangements.

         On November 7, 2015, Steve was visiting Gayron and David when Gayron began writing out a list of how she wanted things handled after her death. On that list, she included the names of potential pallbearers as well as songs she wanted sung at her funeral. She also made three columns -- one each for David, Teresa, and Steve -- and listed property she presumably wanted each of them to have after her death. The items in Teresa's column included "jewelry, Jeep, Nissan, [and] cash"; the items in Steve's column included the mulch business, with instructions that his monthly payments for the business were to be paid into the "joint account";[5] and the items in David's column included the house, trucks, tractors, and the "joint account." When this list was introduced at trial, nobody disputed that it was in Gayron's handwriting, and Steve even acknowledged being ...

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