Case Re Deadline To Enforce Marvin Agreement Against Estate

McMackin v. Ehrheart (California Court of Appeals Second District)

David Tate, Esq (San Francisco), http://davidtate.us

McMackin and McGinness lived together unmarried in McGinness’s home for 17 years until McGinness died in 2004.  According to several witnesses, McGinness repeatedly stated her intent that McMackin remain in her house after she died in consideration for his years of love, affection, care and companionship.  McMackin continued to reside in the home after McGinness’s death, paying for the expenses of maintaining the home, including the mortgage.  In February 2008 McGinness’s daughters started a probate of McGinness estate, and in 2009 they demanded that McMackin enter into a lease or leave the premises.  In November 2009 McGinness’s daughters served McMackin with a 60-day notice to vacate the premises. In January 2010 McMackin filed a complaint against McGinness’s daughters alleging causes of action for declaratory and injunctive relief, arguing that he had a life estate and was entitled to stay in the house.

The trial court granted McMackin’s request for injunctive relief as the court found that McMackin’s agreement was an oral non-marital Marvin agreement. The court determined that under the principle of equitable estoppel the bar of the statute of frauds, holding that the interest in the real property must be in writing, did not apply to the oral Marvin agreement. The court also found that the one-year limitation period of Code Civ. Proc. §366.3 relating to claims being made against an estate did not apply because McMackin was not making a claim as defined by Prob. Code §9000(a).

The Court of Appeal held that the trial court erred in finding that §366.3 did not apply.  Section 366.3 requires that an action to enforce a claim arising from an agreement with a decedent for distribution from an estate must be filed within one year after the decedent’s death.  McMackin’s claim for a life estate arose from the decedent’s promise of a distribution from her estate; accordingly, the claim was for a distribution within the meaning of §366.3.  McMackin did not assert his claim to the life estate in the home until he filed his complaint on January 2010, more than six years after McGinness’s death. His claim to the life estate in the home was thus barred by the one-year limitations period of §366.3.

However, the court also found that there was no indication that the legislature intended to override or negate the principle of equitable estoppel which provides relief to someone who has been induced by another party to forbear filing suit. The court found that the legislature sought only to establish a statute of limitation for the filing of a claim for distribution from an estate by either a written instrument or by an oral agreement or promise, but not to abrogate the possible application of equitable estoppel.

Ultimate the court found that both sides delayed. The estate was opened more than three years after the decedent’s death and McMackin did not file suit until almost two years later. The court found that the trial court would have to determine the facts and whether equitable estoppel precluded application of the one-year limitation period in the circumstances of this case. Interestingly, on appeal the daughters challenged whether the principle of equitable estoppels applied as a matter of law, but not whether it applied based on the facts of this case.

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