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Mendoza v. Gonzales

April 9, 2009

GLORIA I. MENDOZA AND JOSEPHINE E. CANO, APPELLANTS (PLAINTIFFS),
v.
LAWRENCE O. GONZALES, AS TRUSTEE OF THE GONZALES FAMILY TRUST, AND LAWRENCE O. GONZALES, INDIVIDUALLY, APPELLEES (DEFENDANTS).



Appeal from the District Court of Carbon County The Honorable Wade E. Waldrip, Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Voigt, Chief Justice.

Before VOIGT, C.J., and GOLDEN, HILL, KITE, and BURKE, JJ.

[¶1] This matter involves a family dispute over the disposition of certain trust property. The appellants, Gloria I. Mendoza and Josephine E. Cano, claim that the appellee, their brother Lawrence O. Gonzales, wrongfully induced them to disclaim their interest in a large portion of the trust property. The district court concluded that the appellants consented to the appellee‟s actions and thus waived their right to challenge the alleged misconduct. We will affirm.

ISSUES

[¶2] We restate the issues as follows:

1. Was the district court‟s finding that the appellants consented to the appellee‟s actions as trustee clearly erroneous?

2. Were the district court‟s findings that the appellants‟ consent was not void because they knew of their rights and the material facts relating to their consent, and because their consent was not induced by improper conduct by the appellee clearly erroneous?

FACTS

[¶3]The appellants are sisters and the only siblings of the appellee. In 1991, the parties‟ parents created The Gonzales Family Trust ("Trust"). Under the Trust, upon the death of the parents the appellee was to become the successor trustee. The terms of the Trust called for the trust property to be distributed equally among all three siblings. The Trust was vested with three basic categories of property: 1) personal property, consisting of five vehicles and household contents, 2) monetary assets such as cash and certificates of deposit, and 3) real property located in Carbon County, Wyoming.

[¶4] The parties‟ mother died in 1994, and their father passed away on February 14, 2006. Following their father‟s death, the appellee, as trustee, created an inventory and accounting of the trust accounts and sent certified checks to both of the appellants in the amount of their respective shares of the trust cash. With respect to the real property, on April 21, 2006, Appellant Mendoza signed and had notarized a document which read, in pertinent part:

I, Gloria I. Mendoza, do hereby certify and warrant that I am the true and lawful 1/3 owner of the property, together with my only brother, Lawrence O. Gonzales and only sister, Josephine E. Cano. The properties in question are described herein as Lots numbered Five (5), Six (6) and Seven (7), in Block Number Three (3), Southside Addition to the City of Rawlins, Carbon County, Wyoming. And All of Lots Eight (8) and Nine (9), Block Three (3), First Southside Addition to the City of Rawlins, Carbon County, Wyoming.

I convey all my interest in these lots and pass ownership on the aforementioned property lots to my brother, Lawrence O. Gonzales so that complete title and sole ownership can convey to him.

On April 29, 2006, Appellant Cano signed a similar document. On May 11, 2006, the appellee executed a Trustee Warranty Deed conveying the real property at issue from himself as trustee, to himself as an individual. With respect to the vehicles, on the same dates that they signed the above-described documents, the appellants signed and executed Warranty and Notarization Statements, effectively disclaiming their ownership rights in the five vehicles. The appellants‟ reasons for executing these documents conveying the trust property to the appellee are at the center of this dispute.

[¶5] On January 22, 2007, the appellants filed a complaint claiming that the appellee had breached the Trust and committed fraud both in his capacity as trustee and individually. Specifically, they claimed that the documents they had signed were not valid and that they did not intend to waive their respective one-third interests in all of the trust property. The district court held a two-day trial on the matter. The appellee testified that, following the death of their father, the parties met to discuss the disposition of the trust property and that the appellants agreed to gift him the property to help supplement his income because he was on disability. The appellee felt the disclaimer documents were executed in furtherance of this agreement. The appellee‟s son also testified about conversations he had with Appellant Mendoza regarding her desire for the appellee to receive all of the trust property, except the cash. The appellants, on the other hand, insisted that they never waived their interest in the trust property and that they signed the disclaimer documents at the direction of the appellee believing that such was necessary only for the administration of the Trust.

[¶6] On November 26, 2007, the district court issued a lengthy decision letter. The district court concluded that the documents executed by the appellants disclaiming their respective interests in the trust property were valid and evidenced their consent to the appellee‟s actions. On December 26, 2007, the district court entered an order directing the distribution of the trust property and dismissing with prejudice all ...


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