August 5, 2008
CARL J. DELLI SANTI AND ROSALIE DELLI SANTI, PLAINTIFFS-RESPONDENTS,
HELEN R. MIKOLON AND ROBERT L. MIKOLON, DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS.
On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Morris County, C-206-05.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued February 25, 2008
Before Judges Stern and Collester.
Defendant Helen Mikolon appeals from that portion of the April 3, 2007, final judgment entered by Judge Catherine M. Langlois of the Chancery Division declaring that Helen's ownership interest in property located in Randolph, which she transferred by deed dated March 2, 2005 to her son, Robert Mikolon, was limited to a life estate for the period of Helen's life, and that upon Helen's death all of her rights, title, and interest in the property would vest in defendants Carl Delli Santi and Rosalie Delli Santi, his wife and Helen's daughter. We affirm.
It is unfortunate that what began in a spirit of family generosity and cooperation ended in an atmosphere of acrimony giving rise to this lawsuit. In 1974, Carl and Rosalie Delli Santi were searching for a home for their young family near where Carl worked in West Orange. They located a house on Meadowbrook Road in Randolph, but it was about $20,000 more than they could afford to pay. Jack and Helen Mikolon had received money from the early sale of their house in Harrison, and they offered to help pay for the purchase. Carl and Rosalie testified that there was an oral agreement providing that in exchange for their contribution for purchase of the house Jack and Helen would live with the Delli Santis and be taken care of without having to contribute any further costs of the house. The house was financed by a mortgage of $27,500, in addition to $24,000 from Carl and Rosalie and $22,000 from Helen and Jack. Title was placed in the names of Carl and Rosalie and Jack and Helen as "joint tenants with right of survivorship and not as tenants in common." In addition, the Delli Santis paid the sum of $15,000 to $20,000 for upgrades for the home. After the closing, the two families moved in and lived together with the Delli Santis absorbing the costs and maintenance for the home.
Jack Mikolon died four years after the purchase. Helen continued to reside in the residence living with her daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren. She received money from social security and a small pension from which she paid $200 a month to Carl as "rent." As the years passed, Helen began spending more time with her son Robert and his family in Long Branch. In early 2005, she told the Delli Santis that she preferred to live with Robert and wanted her personal things sent to his home. Her decision caused bad feelings between her children. Rosalie was hurt because she took care of Helen for thirty years and now she wanted to live with Robert, who had made no contribution for her support. Robert was upset that his sister would question his motives and his sincere desire to care for his elderly parent.
In 2006, Helen consulted with a lawyer about drawing up a will to devise her interest in the Randolph property to Robert. She was told that since she owned the property in joint tenancy with Carl and Rosalie, she was unable to transfer the property to Robert by will. Therefore, on the advice of her attorney, Helen executed a deed transferring her interest to Carl on March 22, 2005. The deed was recorded on April 4, 2005.
Both Rosalie and Carl were unaware of the conveyance to Robert until Carl was told by the tax collector's office that the tax bill had been sent to his brother-in-law in West Long Branch. Carl and Rosalie brought suit against Helen and Robert to declare the March 22, 2005 transfer void on grounds because of the agreement with Helen and Jack. At the bench trial before Judge Langlois, Carl, Rosalie and their daughter testified that it was agreed and understood that after Helen and Jack died, the Randolph house would be theirs in exchange for their promise to take care of Jack and Helen for the rest of their lives. Helen, now aged ninety-one, was unable to remember the agreement, but she acknowledged that after she and Jack contributed to the purchase, it was their understanding and intention to live in the home until they died.
In her written opinion of March 8, 2007, Judge Langlois held that Helen could convey her interest, as a joint tenant with right of survivorship, to Robert and therefore denied the contention of Carl and Rosalie that the transaction was void. See Gauger v. Gauger, 73 N.J. 538 (1977). However, she found there was an enforceable oral agreement that upon Helen's death Carl and Rosalie would acquire all right, title and interest to the home since they had upheld their part of the agreement of providing a home for Jack and Helen and caring for Helen for three decades with a willingness to continue until her death.
Accordingly, Judge Langlois wrote:
In that sense, specific performance of the agreement - the house would be theirs - is an appropriate remedy here. Plaintiffs bestowed care, protection, society and assistance to Helen for over 30 years. It would be impossible to value that service, so enforcing that promise at her death, by a declaration that full title shall vest in them is equitable.
Moreover, Judge Langlois further found it would be equitable for Carl and Rosalie to pay Robert $22,000, which was the amount Helen and Jack put into the house.
It is what Helen would, at the minimum, have an interest in, and it reflects her wish to help her son financially, just as she had helped her daughter. That payment should be made now from Carl and Rosalie.
The court also finds that Robert should not be responsible for any expenses - e.g. taxes, utilities, upkeep - for the Randolph property because plaintiffs have never sought that from Helen. Since she moved in with Robert, plaintiffs have managed the house as if it were their own. They should be bound, even now, by that decision.
On appeal Helen argues:
THE COURT'S FINDING OF FACTS WERE INADEQUATE FOR THE ENFORCEMENT OF AN ORAL AGREEMENT FOR THE CONVEYANCE OF LAND.
THE ALLEGED AGREEMENT TO TRANSFER PROPERTY AT TIME OF DEATH VIOLATES THE TERMS OF THE STATUTE OF FRAUDS AND DOES NOT FALL WITHIN ANY OF THE ACCEPTED EXCEPTIONS.
THE TRIAL COURT SHOULD BE REVERSED AS THE LAW RELIED UPON IN REACHING A CONCLUSION WAS NOT SUPPORTED BY THE FACTS IN EVIDENCE.
Our standard of review of a trial court's fact-finding in a non-jury case is limited to whether the facts as found are supported by adequate competent evidence in the record. Rova Farms Resort, Inc. v. Investors Ins. Co., 65 N.J. 474, 483-84 (1974). Findings by the trial judge are considered binding on appeal and will not be disturbed unless "they are so wholly insupportable as to result in a denial of justice." See also State v. Wakefield, 190 N.J. 397, 495-96 (2007). In this instance, the factual findings and legal conclusions by Judge Langlois are well supported by the evidence in the record. Furthermore, the argument that the agreement is violative of the statute of frauds is without merit in light of the performance rendered by Carl and Rosalie for more than thirty years. See Klockner v. Green, 54 N.J. 230, 236 (1969); Ballard v. Schoenberg, 224 N.J. Super. 661, 667 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 113 N.J. 367 (1988).
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