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Street v. Street

July 1, 2009

IN THE MATTER OF THE CANCELLATION DEED FROM LEWEN BILL STREET, A/K/A LEWEN B. STREET, JR., APPELLANT (PLAINTIFF),
v.
WILLIAM CLARK STREET; JACQUELINE LOUISE MENKE; AND JONATHAN RAY MENKE, APPELLEES (DEFENDANTS).



Appeal from the District Court of Natrona County The Honorable Scott W. Skavdahl, Judge.

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

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

[¶1] After Lewen Bill Street (appellant) became extremely ill and hospitalized, he entered into a number of transactions conveying items of personal and real property to his children. When the appellant recovered, he claimed that he had no memory of the conveyances. He brought a declaratory judgment action to have the transactions set aside, asserting that they were invalid as he lacked the requisite mental capacity. The district court upheld the validity of the transactions, finding that the appellant was mentally competent at the time the documents were executed. We will affirm the district court's decision.

ISSUES

[¶2] The overriding issue in this appeal is whether the district court's finding that the appellant possessed the necessary mental capacity to make the conveyances was clearly erroneous or contrary to law. The appellant breaks that issue down into four sub-issues:

1. Did the district court improperly apply a presumption of validity to the notarized deed?

2. Did the district court fail to apply the correct standard for the determination of capacity to execute a deed?

3. Did the district court apply the proper burden of proof?

4. Were the district court's factual findings clearly erroneous?

FACTS

[¶3]The appellant has four children: William C. Street, Clyde R. Street, Debra Herrera, and Jackie Menke. During most of his life, the appellant lived on Casper Mountain and owned real and personal property there. He owned a one-acre lot on which his house sat (Tract 3). He also owned a barn and land across the street on a similar parcel (Barn Parcel). Tract 3 and the Barn Parcel were part of the Wa Wa Subdivision. The appellant owned a six-eighths interest in a pipeline that distributed water to the Wa Wa Subdivision (Wa Wa Pipeline). Immediately adjacent to these properties he owned an 181/2 acre tract (181/2 acre tract). Finally, he owned a one-quarter undivided interest in a contiguous 460 acre tract of undeveloped land on Casper Mountain (Homestead).

[¶4] On November 21, 2004, the appellant became gravely ill and was admitted to the Wyoming Medical Center with what appeared to be pneumonia. He was then transferred to the intensive care unit (ICU) with symptoms of congestive heart failure. His condition improved and on December 6, 2004, he was transferred to the transitional care unit, with anticipation that he might go home within one or two weeks. The next day, the appellant conveyed Tract 3 to himself and Debra as joint tenants.

[¶5] On December 11, 2004, the appellant's condition deteriorated and he once again was admitted to the ICU with a diagnosis of respiratory failure secondary to severe congestive heart failure secondary to severe aortic regurgitation. That evening the family was told that the appellant's heart condition was inoperable, that he was terminal, and that he had a 5% chance of survival that night. The appellant did survive the night and returned to the medical floor where he remained until December 21, 2004, when he was transferred to the Central Wyoming Hospice for end of life care. The day before the appellant was transferred to the hospice, he conveyed the Barn Parcel to Debra.

[¶6] According to nurses' notes and other medical records the appellant's health continued to improve while at the hospice. On December 27, 2004, the appellant signed a bill of sale conveying his interest in the Wa Wa Pipeline to William. On January 7, 2005, the appellant conveyed the 181/2 acre tract to William and Debra. On that same day, the appellant conveyed his one-quarter undivided interest in the Homestead to William, Jackie and Clyde, one-third each. The appellant was discharged from the hospice on March 18, 2005.

[¶7] On March 9, 2006, the appellant filed a petition for declaratory judgment naming three of his children, William, Clyde, and Jackie as defendants.*fn1 In his petition, the appellant requested that title to the Homestead property be quieted in his favor and the transfer to William, Clyde and Jackie be set aside. As grounds for his petition, the appellant alleged that he was not competent to execute the documents transferring the property. On January 9, 2008, the appellant moved to amend the petition, adding a claim that the bill of sale transferring the Wa Wa Pipeline to William was invalid, again on the ground that he lacked mental capacity to make the conveyance. That motion to amend was granted by oral ruling.

[¶8] A bench trial commenced on January 14, 2008, and continued for three days. On February 6, 2008, the district court issued an oral ruling finding the appellant failed to show "by a preponderance of the evidence that at the time the deeds in question and the bill of sale in question were executed, that [the appellant] lacked capacity to understand in accordance with the requirements under Wyoming law." A judgment in favor of the appellees was entered on February 20, 2008, affirming the validity of the deed to the Homestead property and the bill of sale for the Wa Wa Pipeline. This appeal timely followed.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

[¶9] After a bench trial, we review the trial court's factual findings under a clearly erroneous standard and its legal conclusions de novo. Hansuld v. Lariat Diesel Corp., 2003 WY 165, ¶ 13, 81 P.3d 215, 218 (Wyo. 2003) (citing Rennard v. Vollmar, 977 P.2d 1277, 1279 (Wyo. 1999)). We do not substitute ourselves for the trial court as a finder of facts; instead, we defer to the trial court's findings unless they are unsupported by the record or erroneous as a matter of law. Deroche v. R.L. Manning Co., 737 P.2d 332, 336 (Wyo. 1987). Although the factual findings of a trial court are not entitled to the limited review afforded a jury verdict, the findings are presumptively correct. Piroschak v. Whelan, 2005 WY 26, ¶ 7, 106 P.3d 887, 890 (Wyo. 2005).

This Court may examine all of the properly admissible evidence in the record, but we do not reweigh the evidence. Forshee, et ux. v. Delaney, et ux., 2005 WY 103, ¶ 6, 118 P.3d 445, 448 (Wyo. 2005). Due regard is given to the opportunity of the trial judge to assess the credibility of the witnesses. We accept the prevailing party's evidence as true and give to that evidence every favorable inference which may fairly and reasonably be drawn from it. Harber v. Jensen, 2004 WY 104, ¶ 7, 97 P.3d 57, 60 (Wyo. 2004) (quoting Life Care Centers of America, Inc. v. Dexter, 2003 WY 38, ¶ 7, 65 P.3d 385, 389 (Wyo. 2003)). Findings may not be set aside because we would have reached a different result. Harber, ¶ 7, 97 P.3d at 60 (citing Double Eagle Petroleum & Mining Corp. v. Questar Exploration & Production Co., 2003 WY 139, ¶ 6, 78 P.3d 679, 681 (Wyo. 2003)). A finding will only be set aside if, although ...


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