McMackin v. Ehrheart – The Canary Swallows the Cat

In McMackin v. Ehrheart (April 8, 2011) 2011 DJDAR 5122, the court of appeal held that a Marvin-based palimony claim under California law could be asserted against an estate more than three years after the decedent’s death.  We remark on the extent to which the law is willing to allow a person to make a claim to real property when that claim is not evidenced by a writing, and, even when title was held 100% in the decedent’s name, as in McMackin.

Before reviewing the decision, let’s cut to the chase.  Hugh McCrackin lived with Patricia McGinness for 17 years, from 1987 until 2004.  He helped her in her declining health.  Patricia told people that she wanted Hugh to live in her house for the rest of her life.  The couple never married.

Let’s accept all of the foregoing as true.  On the other hand, Patricia did not make a will manifesting her intentions.  Nor did she undertake the simple expediency of executing a deed with a life estate in favor of Hugh.  Now, after Patricia’s death, Hugh petitions the court to enforce Patricia’s oral intentions.

These facts do not strike this writer as commanding judicial intervention.  The ability to execute a will or a deed with a life estate is known to all.  The notion that courts should be quick to enforce oral agreements in derogation of the statute of frauds is discomforting, and bears greater scrutiny.

To return to the case.  “Plaintiff Hugh J. McMackin lived with Patricia Lyn McGinness in her home from approximately 1987 until [Patricia] died intestate on October 1, 2004. [Hugh] was never on title to the home but continued to occupy it after [Patricia]’s death.

“Defendants Kimberly Frost and Kellian Ehrheart are [Patricia]’s daughters and are the heirs of [Patricia]’s estate. On February 25, 2008, more than three years after [Patricia]’s death, [her daughter] opened a probate . . .

“On November 23, 2009, Ehrheart served [Hugh] with a 60-day notice to quit. On January 13, 2010, [Hugh] filed a complaint, the gravamen of which was that [Patricia] promised him a life estate in the home upon her death in consideration for 17 years of his ‘love, affection, care and companionship.’”

That’s the stage for this action.  “On January 21, 2010, [Hugh] filed an ex parte application for a temporary restraining order and for an order to show cause why an injunction should not issue to enjoin [the daughters] from evicting him from the home.”

The injunction was entered in favor of Hugh, and was affirmed on appeal.  According to Hugh, Patricia “agreed that he could live in the home for the rest of his life after her death and that she made this promise in consideration of the love, affection, care and companionship we shared over those 17 years.”  The housekeeper “declared that on approximately twenty (20) different occasions [Patricia] told her that she wanted [Hugh] to live in the home for the rest of his life.”

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This is a classic case of an promise that lies outside the statute of frauds, and would normally be unenforceable.  Even more, California Probate Code section 366.3 provides 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.  This statute applies to “a promise to transfer property upon death [that] could be performed only after death, by the decedent’s personal representative, by conveying property that otherwise belonged to the estate.”

The court of appeal noted that “The limitations period provided in this section for commencement of an action shall not be tolled or extended for any reason except as provided in Sections 12, 12a, and 12b of this code, and [certain provisions] of the Probate Code [not applicable to this action].”

Hugh would appear to be out of luck.  However, the court of appeal rescued Hugh by allowing him to apply the doctrine of “equitable estoppel.”  “The court held that there is a distinction between the doctrine of equitable estoppel, on the one hand, and the tolling or extension of the statute of limitations, on the other hand.”

In other words, “there is a distinction between tolling and equitable estoppel. Tolling concerns the suspension of the statute of limitations. The doctrine of equitable estoppel applies only after the limitations period has run to preclude a party from asserting the statute of limitations as a defense to an untimely action where the party’s conduct has induced another into forbearing to file suit.”

The court of appeal ruled that “depending on the circumstances of each case, the doctrine of equitable estoppel may preclude a party from asserting section 366.3 as a defense to an untimely action where the party’s wrongdoing has induced another to forbear filing suit.”

Unfortunately, the opinion does not address whether there was any factual basis for Hugh’s assertion of equitable estoppel against the daughters.  We do not know that the daughters did after the death of their mother that stopped the statute of limitations from running.

Stated the court, “We are not asked, nor do we decide, whether this implied ruling was supported by substantial evidence because [the daughters] made it clear at oral argument on appeal that they challenge the application of equitable estoppel as a matter of law, not whether the evidence supported its application for the purposes of the issuance of a preliminary injunction.“

That’s the easy way out.  The court does not tell us what the daughters said or did that gave Hugh the right claim they were estopped (i.e., prevented by their conduct) from asserting the one-year statute of limitations as a defense.  For the time being, Hugh has deftly stepped over both the statute of frauds and the statute of limitations.

McMackin v. Ehrheart (April 8, 2011) 2011 DJDAR 5122