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Stockwell v. Stockwell

October 13, 2010



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Severson, Justice

ARGUED MAY 25, 2010

[¶1.] Lloyd Stockwell initiated this action to quiet title to property deeded to him by his father, Cecil Stockwell, Sr. (Cecil Sr.). Cecil Stockwell, Jr. (Cecil Jr.), Bruce Stockwell, John Stockwell, and the Estate of Cecil Sr. filed a counterclaim, alleging that Cecil Sr. lacked the testamentary capacity to execute the deed and that the deed was the product of undue influence.*fn1 The trial court entered a judgment quieting title and recognizing the legal validity of and enforcing Cecil Sr.'s warranty deed in favor of Lloyd. We affirm.


[¶2.] Cecil Sr. was born on August 11, 1913, to Bernard and Ida Stockwell. Cecil Sr. lived and farmed in Minnehaha and McCook counties until his death in 2004 at the age of ninety-one. Cecil Sr. and his ex-wife, Opal, had five children: Cecil Jr., Dennis, Bruce, John, and Lloyd. Dennis was killed in the Vietnam War. Cecil Sr.'s remaining four children are the parties to this lawsuit.

[¶3.] Cecil Sr. purchased his first parcel of land at the age of twenty-eight and continued to acquire land until he was seventy-five years old. At the time of his death, Cecil Sr. owned nearly 1,000 acres of farmland in fourteen separate parcels in Minnehaha and McCook counties. It was extremely important to Cecil Sr. that his farmland remain in the Stockwell family. Throughout his life, Cecil Sr. gave his sons land or money to buy land or allowed them to acquire his land at a reduced price. Cecil Sr. never sold a parcel of his land to anyone other than his children.

[¶4.] Cecil Sr. also farmed with each of his sons. From approximately 1972 to 1975, Cecil Sr., John, and Lloyd farmed together. Cecil Sr. experienced a difficult financial period in the mid 1970's. At that time, John and Lloyd assumed Cecil Sr.'s debt and took possession of his machinery. John and Lloyd continued to farm together until 1984. In 1985, Cecil Sr. asked Bruce, John, and Lloyd whether they would enter into a farming partnership with him. Bruce and John declined the invitation, but Lloyd accepted. Cecil Sr. and Lloyd began farming together as business partners. This partnership continued until Cecil Sr.'s death in 2004.

[¶5.] In February 1992, Cecil Sr. consulted with Dale Strasser, an attorney in Freeman, South Dakota, regarding estate planning. At that time, Cecil Sr. executed and Attorney Strasser notarized a power of attorney in favor of Lloyd. This power of attorney continued in full force and effect until Cecil Sr.'s death. Cecil Sr. also asked Attorney Strasser to prepare a deed for each of his four sons. The deeds provided that Lloyd would receive 594 acres, Bruce would receive 300 acres, John would receive 160 acres, and Cecil Jr. would receive eighty acres. Each deed reserved a life estate in favor of Cecil Sr. Cecil Sr. executed the deeds, but they were not delivered to the grantees or recorded.

[¶6.] Cecil Sr. became ill and began living with Lloyd and his wife, Lynn, in November 1997. Cecil Sr. eventually recovered from his illness and regained the strength to help around the farm. In 2001, Cecil Sr. was able to drive a vehicle, walk around the farm to check on livestock, fill water tanks, sort cattle, and assist with other chores. Cecil Sr.'s health declined after he broke his hip in 2002, and Lloyd became increasingly responsible for Cecil Sr.'s personal needs.

[¶7.] Cecil Sr.'s relationship with John became strained in 2000. Cecil Sr. gifted an eighty-acre parcel of farmland to John in 1979. In 2000, Lynn saw a notice in the newspaper regarding the upcoming auction of a forty-acre parcel of this land. She brought the notice to the attention of Lloyd, Cecil Sr., and Cecil Jr. John had not told any member of the family about the upcoming sale. Upon reading the notice, Cecil Sr. disappeared into his bedroom and emerged a few hours later with red, teary eyes. Cecil Sr. commented that John would receive no land from him and expressed a desire to redraft the 1992 deeds.

[¶8.] In the summer of 2001, Cecil Sr. directed Lynn to prepare deeds in favor of Bruce, Cecil Jr., and Lloyd. Cecil Sr. provided Lynn with the 1992 deeds to use as templates. Lynn typed at least three drafts of each of the deeds. When each draft was completed, she gave it to Cecil Sr. for his review. Cecil Sr. pointed out errors, and Lynn corrected them. At this time, Cecil Sr. could recite the legal descriptions of each of his fourteen parcels of farmland from memory. While preparing the 2001 deeds, Lynn was not familiar with the legal descriptions of land, but could see that Lloyd's deed contained more legal descriptions than the deeds in favor of Bruce and Cecil Jr. Because Cecil Sr. and Lynn prepared these deeds in the evening after Lloyd had gone to bed, Lloyd was not involved in their preparation.

[¶9.] The 2001 deeds were different than the 1992 deeds. Cecil Sr. did not prepare a deed for John in 2001. Bruce's 2001 deed included a 140-acre parcel in his 1992 deed, but not an eighty-acre parcel along the Vermillion River. Lloyd's 2001 deed included all the property in his 1992 deed, plus two additional parcels: the eighty-acre parcel in John's 1992 deed and the eighty-acre parcel along the Vermillion River in Bruce's 1992 deed. Cecil Jr.'s 2001 deed contained the same eighty-acre parcel as his 1992 deed. Like the 1992 deeds, each deed reserved a life estate in favor of Cecil Sr.

[¶10.] On the morning of September 27, 2001, Cecil Sr. asked Lloyd to take him to a notary public to sign the deeds he and Lynn prepared. That afternoon, Lloyd drove Cecil Sr. to a bank in Humboldt where Cecil Sr. previously had documents notarized. Upon learning that there was no notary public on duty, Lloyd drove Cecil Sr. to the Home Federal Bank in nearby Hartford. Maryls Bartmann, an employee of Home Federal Bank, notarized the 2001 deeds. Cecil Sr. retained possession of the deeds on the drive back to Lloyd's home. Once they arrived home, Cecil Sr. handed the three executed deeds to Lloyd, smiled, and said either, "Here you go," or "Here they are." Lloyd accepted the deeds and placed them in the top drawer of a dresser in Cecil Sr.'s bedroom. The dresser belonged to Lloyd, but he and Cecil Sr. kept titles, abstracts, and loan information in it.

[¶11.] In October 2003, Cecil Jr., Bruce, and John filed an action seeking the appointment of a conservator and guardian for Cecil Sr. They sought to place Cecil Sr. in a nursing home. This lawsuit greatly upset Cecil Sr. Lloyd hired Tom Johnson, an attorney in Sioux Falls, to defend the conservatorship and guardianship action. In December 2003, Attorney Johnson videotaped an interview with Cecil Sr. to document his competency and desire to continue living with Lloyd and Lynn. During the interview, Cecil Sr. was able to identify his four children, their occupations, and generally where they resided. He stated that he liked living with Lloyd and Lynn and that he did not want to change his living arrangement. He confirmed that Lloyd had never threatened or harmed him.

[¶12.] But Cecil Sr. made several misstatements during the course of the interview. When asked how much land he owned, Cecil Sr. incorrectly stated that he owned 300 acres. He, in fact, owned nearly 1,000 acres at the time. He was not asked to identify the parcels he owned or how many quarter-sections they comprised. He indicated that he remembered signing the 2001 deeds and that Lloyd was to receive a majority of his property because it was the "fairest way to do it," but could not say why. Cecil Sr. also struggled to name one of his grandchildren and appeared unaware that Opal, his ex-wife, had remarried.

[¶13.] On July 7, 2004, Lloyd informed Cecil Sr. that he would have to move to a nursing home. Cecil Sr. told Lloyd that he should record the 2001 deeds and directed him to retrieve the deeds from the dresser in his bedroom. Realizing that he likely would never see his land and livestock again, Cecil Sr. asked Lloyd to drive him around the farm one last time. Lloyd drove Cecil Sr. around the property before taking him to the Good Samaritan Home in Canistota. Shortly thereafter, Lloyd took the 2001 deeds to Attorney Johnson to be recorded. Cecil Sr. passed away four months later on November 19, 2004.

[ΒΆ14.] On January 12, 2005, Lloyd initiated this action against the Stockwells to quiet title to the property deeded to him by Cecil Sr. The Stockwells filed a counterclaim on March 8, 2005, alleging lack of testamentary capacity and undue influence. The case proceeded to trial on April 21 and 22, 2009. On June 23, 2009, the trial court entered findings of fact and conclusions of law, finding that Lloyd's 2001 deed was validly delivered on September 27, 2001, and that Cecil Sr. was competent when the deed was prepared, executed, delivered, and recorded. The trial court further found that the 2001 deeds were not ...

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