ILNews

Man wasn't competent to sign contract

Jennifer Nelson
July 28, 2009
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The Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed a neighbor of a mentally ill man shouldn't have been able to purchase the man's farm because the man was incompetent when he signed the sales contract.

In James Nichols v. Estate of Ernest M Tyler,  No. 45A04-0811-CV-640, the appellate court determined the trial court didn't err when it concluded Ernest Tyler was incompetent in February 2005 to convey his farm nor did it err by determining James Nichols failed to rebut the presumption of undue influence over Tyler with regard to the real property transfer.

Tyler had a history of mental illness and was in and out of hospitals his entire life. He could answer simple questions but never carried on a conversation. Tyler lived with a brother on a farm near Nichols. Once the brother died, Tyler's family asked Nichols to look after him.

As a result of a check scam, Nichols brought Tyler to Nichols' attorney and had Tyler sign a durable power of attorney appointing Nichols as his attorney in fact, which allowed Nichols to deal with the bank directly regarding the scam. The attorney also helped Tyler form a revocable living trust and transferred the farm and farmhouse to the trust. Nichols was the trustee. Tyler then signed a contract, which sold the property in the trust to Nichols. Nichols agreed to pay Tyler $200 a month until Tyler's death. Tyler's family knew nothing about the check scam, trust, or real estate sale. The attorney was unaware of Tyler's mental health history.

The family became concerned after they discovered Nichols held the only key to Tyler's home, Tyler lived in filth, and Nichols controlled Tyler's mail and phone line. He prevented family members from visiting unannounced and videotaped their meetings with Tyler. A doctor evaluated Tyler and found he had Alzheimer's disease, but couldn't say whether he was competent when he signed the contract. Family members eventually gained guardianship over Tyler, who died several months later.

At the trial challenging the contract of sale, the court found Tyler was incompetent at all times, he had an extensive history of mental illness, the doctor who examined him testified Tyler was incompetent at the time he entered into the agreements at issue, and Nichols' undue influence resulted in Tyler deeding his property to a trust and selling it to Nichols.

The trial court didn't err in finding Tyler was mentally incompetent when he signed the contract of sale, wrote Judge Elaine Brown. The Court of Appeals refused to reweigh the evidence as to the doctor's testimony. The trial court found the doctor's expert opinion was sound, she wrote. The Court of Appeals also rejected Nichols' argument that Tyler's competency should be compared to the standards for competency to stand trial in criminal cases because the standard to be used in the instant case is like that in making a will, she wrote. The evidence shows prior to and after making the contract, Tyler had a lack of mental capacity based on his history of hospitalization and his poor living conditions and hygiene.

Nichols also failed to rebut the presumption of undue influence of Tyler. Undue influence can be proven by circumstantial evidence, which there was enough of in the instant case for the trial court to find he unduly influenced Tyler into selling his property for inadequate consideration. Nichols isn't a credible witness and many of his arguments were merely an invitation to reweigh the evidence, which the appellate court cannot do, wrote the judge.

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  1. This sure is not what most who value good governance consider the Rule of Law to entail: "In a letter dated March 2, which Brizzi forwarded to IBJ, the commission dismissed the grievance “on grounds that there is not reasonable cause to believe that you are guilty of misconduct.”" Yet two month later reasonable cause does exist? (Or is the commission forging ahead, the need for reasonable belief be damned? -- A seeming violation of the Rules of Profession Ethics on the part of the commission) Could the rule of law theory cause one to believe that an explanation is in order? Could it be that Hoosier attorneys live under Imperial Law (which is also a t-word that rhymes with infamy) in which the Platonic guardians can do no wrong and never owe the plebeian class any explanation for their powerful actions. (Might makes it right?) Could this be a case of politics directing the commission, as celebrated IU Mauer Professor (the late) Patrick Baude warned was happening 20 years ago in his controversial (whisteblowing) ethics lecture on a quite similar topic: http://www.repository.law.indiana.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1498&context=ilj

  2. I have a case presently pending cert review before the SCOTUS that reveals just how Indiana regulates the bar. I have been denied licensure for life for holding the wrong views and questioning the grand inquisitors as to their duties as to state and federal constitutional due process. True story: https://www.scribd.com/doc/299040839/2016Petitionforcert-to-SCOTUS Shorter, Amici brief serving to frame issue as misuse of govt licensure: https://www.scribd.com/doc/312841269/Thomas-More-Society-Amicus-Brown-v-Ind-Bd-of-Law-Examiners

  3. Here's an idea...how about we MORE heavily regulate the law schools to reduce the surplus of graduates, driving starting salaries up for those new grads, so that we can all pay our insane amount of student loans off in a reasonable amount of time and then be able to afford to do pro bono & low-fee work? I've got friends in other industries, radiology for example, and their schools accept a very limited number of students so there will never be a glut of new grads and everyone's pay stays high. For example, my radiologist friend's school accepted just six new students per year.

  4. I totally agree with John Smith.

  5. An idea that would harm the public good which is protected by licensing. Might as well abolish doctor and health care professions licensing too. Ridiculous. Unrealistic. Would open the floodgates of mischief and abuse. Even veteranarians are licensed. How has deregulation served the public good in banking, for example? Enough ideology already!

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