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Niesche v. Wilkinson

Supreme Court of South Dakota

December 11, 2013

Laurel NIESCHE, as Special Administratrix of the Estate of Mary Lou Fox, Plaintiff and Appellant,
v.
Todd D. WILKINSON, Administrator of the Estate of Robert Fox and Substitute Trustee of Silver Fox Trust, Appellee.

Argued Oct. 1, 2013.

Page 251

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

Page 252

Robert A. Martin, Rapid City, South Dakota, Attorney for plaintiff and appellant.

Michael J. Schaffer, Paul H. Linde of Schaffer Law Office, Prof. LLC, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Attorneys for appellee.

ZINTER, Justice.

[¶ 1.] Laurel Niesche is the daughter of Mary Lou Fox. After Mary Lou died, Niesche sued Mary Lou's former husband, Robert Fox. Niesche alleged that Mary Lou jointly owned 960 acres of farmland with Robert. Niesche contended that Robert deprived Mary Lou of her ownership interest in the land, which deprived Niesche of an inheritance from Mary Lou. The circuit court granted Robert summary judgment. Niesche appeals.[1] We affirm.

Facts and Procedural History

[¶ 2.] Robert and Mary Lou married each other twice. The second marriage was in 1972. They remained married until Mary Lou's death in 2007. Mary Lou had three children from a previous marriage. Robert had no children.

[¶ 3.] Robert acquired three quarter-sections of farmland by deeds from third parties before he married Mary Lou. During their marriage, Robert acquired three additional quarter-sections of farmland by deeds from or through his mother. All 960 acres were titled in Robert's name, and the property remained titled in his name alone. In contrast, when Robert and Mary Lou purchased a home in Huron, they titled it in joint tenancy.

[¶ 4.] At different times during the marriage, Mary Lou and Robert co-signed loan documents (e.g., financial statements, promissory notes, and mortgages) that involved the 960 acres. The loans were used in part to satisfy debt Robert owed on the farmland he acquired before the marriage. The loans were also used to purchase the additional farmland Robert acquired during the marriage.

[¶ 5.] In 2005, Robert contracted to sell 160 acres of the farmland to Spink Hutterian Brethren, Inc. (Brethren). He also entered into an option contract and lease with Brethren for the remaining 800 acres. Although Mary Lou was not an owner of record, she and Robert signed the documents relating to these agreements. These documents, as well as some of the loan documents, referred to Mary Lou and Robert collectively as the " sellers," " owner," " lessors," or " mortgagor." Mary Lou and Robert later signed a warranty deed, which conveyed the 160 acres to Brethren. The deed referred to Robert and Mary Lou as " grantors." The deed was to be held in escrow until final payment, in accordance with the contract for deed.

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[¶ 6.] In 2006, Robert created a revocable trust.[2] He was the sole trustor and trustee. On the day the trust was created, Robert and Mary Lou signed a warranty deed conveying all the farmland to the trust.[3] This deed also recited that Mary Lou and Robert were the " grantors." Brethren ultimately obtained the 160 acres by warranty deed from the trust. Brethren also exercised its option to purchase the remaining 800 acres. Robert, acting as trustee, entered into a contract for deed with Brethren for the remaining 800 acres.

[¶ 7.] In 2010, Niesche sued Robert for an inheritance she claimed she should have been entitled to receive from Mary Lou. Niesche sought the inheritance on two theories. She first argued that because Mary Lou was married to Robert, Mary Lou held the 960 acres as a tenant in common with Robert. Niesche contended that the various co-signed documents established that Mary Lou and Robert owned the land as tenants in common even though Robert was the only titleholder of record. Niesche also sought the inheritance on the theory that Robert had verbally agreed that half the land would go to Mary Lou's children. Niesche alleged that Mary Lou was deprived of a property interest in the farmland because Robert dominated the marriage, particularly the property transactions, and he was controlling to the point that Mary Lou did whatever he asked.

[¶ 8.] Niesche initially pleaded causes of action for breach of marital and fiduciary duty, fraud and deceit, intentional interference with inheritance, and unjust enrichment, along with claims for punitive damages and attorney's fees. She later added causes of action for constructive trust, estoppel, and undue influence. Robert filed a motion for summary judgment on all causes of action and claims. The circuit court granted Robert summary judgment, and Niesche appeals raising the following issues:

1. Whether Mary Lou and Robert's marriage created a confidential and fiduciary relationship that required Robert to prove he did not ...

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