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. The practitioners and judges who hail E-filing as the Saviour of the West need to contain their respective excitements. E-filing is federal court requires the practitioner to cram his motion practice into pigeonholes created by IT people. Compound motions or those seeking alternative relief are effectively barred, unless the practitioner wants to receive a tart note from some functionary admonishing about the "problem". E-filing is just another method by which courts and judges transfer their burden to practitioners, who are the really the only powerless components of the system. Of COURSE it is easier for the court to require all of its imput to conform to certain formats, but this imposition does NOT improve the quality of the practice of law and does NOT improve the ability of the practitioner to advocate for his client or to fashion pleadings that exactly conform to his client's best interests. And we should be very wary of the disingenuous pablum about the costs. The courts will find a way to stick it to the practitioner. Lake County is a VERY good example of this rapaciousness. Any one who does not believe this is invited to review the various special fees that system imposes upon practitioners- as practitioners- and upon each case ON TOP of the court costs normal in every case manually filed. Jurisprudence according to Aldous Huxley.

  2. Any attorneys who practice in federal court should be able to say the same as I can ... efiling is great. I have been doing it in fed court since it started way back. Pacer has its drawbacks, but the ability to hit an e-docket and pull up anything and everything onscreen is a huge plus for a litigator, eps the sole practitioner, who lacks a filing clerk and the paralegal support of large firms. Were I an Indiana attorney I would welcome this great step forward.

  3. Can we get full disclosure on lobbyist's payments to legislatures such as Mr Buck? AS long as there are idiots that are disrespectful of neighbors and intent on shooting fireworks every night, some kind of regulations are needed.

  4. I am the mother of the child in this case. My silence on the matter was due to the fact that I filed, both in Illinois and Indiana, child support cases. I even filed supporting documentation with the Indiana family law court. Not sure whether this information was provided to the court of appeals or not. Wish the case was done before moving to Indiana, because no matter what, there is NO WAY the state of Illinois would have allowed an appeal on a child support case!

  5. "No one is safe when the Legislature is in session."

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