On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Camden County, Docket No. C-22-05.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Lihotz and Simonelli.
This matter involves a dispute between plaintiffs Salvatore Bravata and Antonina Bravata over the alleged transfer of title to their home located at 236 Marlboro Avenue, West Collingswood (the house), and the alleged transfer of title to a 1992 Buick LaSabre (the Buick) to their daughter, defendant Giuseppa Bravata Micomonaco. Defendant appeals from the final judgment of January 4, 2007, voiding the deed transferring the house to her, compelling her to return the title to the Buick to her father, and compelling her to pay one-half of her parents' attorneys' fees and costs.
In this appeal, defendant contends the transfer of the house and the Buick were valid gifts, and her parents understood what they were doing when they gifted the house and the Buick to her. Defendant also contends for the first time that since title to the Buick was not in defendant's name, Judge Vogelson could not order her to transfer it to her father. We reject these contentions and affirm.
Defendant also contends Judge Vogelson erred in compelling her to pay one-half of plaintiffs' attorneys' fees and costs. We agree and reverse.
The following facts are summarized from the record. In addition to defendant, Mr. and Mrs. Bravata have four other children, Santo, Vincent, Maria, and Angelina.*fn1 The Bravatas emigrated from Sicily in 1959 and 1960 respectively. They are not wealthy people, have very little education, and do not speak, write or read English. They have resided in the house for over thirty years, and it is their largest single asset. Mr. Bravata also had $100,000 in a savings account in his own name and five separate bank accounts, in his and each child's name, in the approximate amount of $36,000.*fn2 The Bravatas made known to the family that the child or children who cared for them in their old age would receive the house after they died.
At the time of the trial in February 2006, Mr. Bravata was ninety-three years old, hard of hearing, had a pacemaker, walked with a walker, could no longer drive and needed assistance caring for himself and the house. Mrs. Bravata was ninety-five years old, had Alzheimer's, was bedridden, could no longer speak or take care of herself, and had no apparent mental faculties. Her mental condition began deteriorating in the early 1990's, and she was diagnosed with dementia in 1995. By approximately 1999, Mrs. Bravata became more forgetful; in 2000 she signed a general power of attorney; by 2001 she did not recognize her husband; and by 2002 she did not remember anyone or anything, could not engage in a conversation or walk, was incapacitated, and could not care for herself. The children initially took turns caring for their mother. Defendant eventually decided that she alone would care for her mother, but wanted her father to give her the house in exchange. Mr. Bravata refused to do so.
Defendant continued her efforts to get the house, but her father continued resisting. Mr. Bravata became ill in October 2002 and was hospitalized. During that time, defendant cared for her mother in defendant's home because the mother could not be left alone, was incapacitated, and needed help with everything. When Mr. Bravata returned home from the hospital, defendant demanded that he give her the house. She also said that she would serve her parents for life if she got the house, but she also threatened to stop caring for her mother if this did not occur. Mr. Bravata still resisted.
Mr. Bravata had a last will and testament, which devised the house to his children in equal shares if his wife predeceased him. In an attempt to resolve the matter, he drafted a new will in August 2002, which defendant rejected. He drafted a second new will in September 2002, which placed the house in a trust for his wife, with defendant as trustee, and distributed the proceeds of the trust equally to the children after his wife's death.
Defendant rejected the second draft, and kept pressuring her father to give her the house, stating she would not continue caring for her mother unless she received it. Defendant eventually developed a solution, which she presented to her father. She agreed to continue caring for her mother if her father signed a document and attached it to the deed, which would give defendant the house after her father died. Defendant also said she would give the papers to Mr. Bravata's brother, "Uncle Joe," whom Mr. Bravata trusted, to hold until her father died, at which time the deed would be recorded. Because Mr. Bravata felt pressured, and because he believed that the attachment would be held by Uncle Joe and would not be recorded until after his death, he agreed to sign it. Mr. Bravata also believed that by signing this document, defendant would serve him and his wife for the rest of their life.
Defendant retained and paid Joseph M. Rollo, Esq. (Rollo) to prepare a deed transferring the house to her. Rollo understood that the Bravatas were giving defendant the house in exchange for her care of her mother, and he expected defendant to continue that care after the deed was signed. Prior to January 12, 2003, Rollo did not speak with Mr. and Mrs. Bravata, and he did not know if they lived with defendant or independently. On January 12, 2003, Rollo went to defendant's home to have the Bravatas sign the new deed. He did ask if the Bravatas had wills or whether that had any assets other than the house, and he made no recommendations to them about the new deed.
Defendant advised Rollo that her parents agreed to sign the deed, but it would not be recorded until after her father died. Rollo said this was not legal and explained that Mr. Bravata could remain in the house until his death by adding a life estate in the deed.*fn3 This was the first time that a life estate was mentioned, no one explained it to Mr. Bravata, and he did not understand what it meant.*fn4 Mr. Bravata signed the papers believing they would be given to Uncle Joe, and that defendant would receive the house after he died. He never intended to ...