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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