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A Better Partnership
October 23, 2015

COA concludes that the plain terms of trust authorized “Lady Bird” Quitclaim Deed and there is no presumption of undue influence without a fiduciary or confidential relationship

In the consolidated appeal of Bill and Dena Brown Trust v. Garcia, Nos. 322401; 322402, the Michigan Court of Appeals held that 1) the trust’s plain terms enabled the settlor to execute a quitclaim deed in his favor; and 2) there was no evidence presented in order to establish a fiduciary relationship to invoke a presumption of undue influence.  The issues on appeal were 1) whether the settlor’s conveyance of property to himself was contrary to the intent of the trust; and 2) whether there was a fiduciary relationship between the settlor and the personal representative of his estate so as to invoke a presumption of undue influence.  The Court affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary disposition in favor of the defendant on both issues.
In 2007, Bill and Dena Brown (the “Browns”) created a living trust agreement and identical wills, which included a provision providing for the transfer of property to the trust.  In February 2008, the Browns purchased property and moved into the home before Dena died in August 2008.  Then, in 2010, Bill was contacted by a woman named Geri Garcia who claimed that she was the daughter of Bill’s brother.  The brother denied paternity, but Brown continued and developed a close relationship with Garcia.  In February of 2012, Brown executed a last will and testament that devised the residue of his estate to Garcia and named her as personal representative.  In addition, Brown conveyed via a “Lady Bird” quitclaim deed, the property that the Browns purchased in 2008, to himself with the property passing to Garcia upon his death.  When Brown passed away in early 2013, his nephew became the successor trustee of the trust.  The nephew filed an action with the trial court for quiet title to the property and later filed a claim for undue influence.  Later that year, Garcia filed a petition with the probate court for determination of heirs and the parties agreed to consolidate the two actions.  The trial court, in separate proceedings, granted Garcia’s motions for summary disposition and concluded that the terms of the trust authorized Brown to execute the “Lady Bird” deed and there was no evidence presented to establish a claim for undue influence.  Brown’s nephew then filed this appeal.         
In regards to the nephew’s claim to quiet title to the property, the Court of Appeals concluded that the trust’s plain language established the settlors’ intent and authorized Brown to quitclaim the property to himself and pass it to Garcia upon his death.  According to the Court, a “Lady Bird” quitclaim deed “conveys an enhanced life estate that reserves to the grantor ‘the rights to sell, commit waste, and almost everything else.’”  To support its holding, the Court pointed to actual trust language which authorized this type of conveyance.
On the undue influence claim, the Court held that no evidence was presented to establish a confidential or fiduciary relationship between Brown and Garcia and therefore there was no presumption of undue influence.  Further, there was testimony from witnesses that indicated Brown was acting on his own volition when executing the quitclaim deed and his last will and testament.

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