December 22, 2011
Authored by: Luke Lantta
It’s actually one of the first cases law students learn about in their contracts class – a distant relative comes to live with and care for a sickly aunt, sister, or uncle in alleged reliance on the sickly relative’s promise to leave the helpful relative something from the sickly one’s estate. The sickly relative dies, leaving the helpful relative nothing. Can the helpful relative sue to enforce the promise? As with all things in the law, it depends.
In Georgia, if you want to enforce that promise, you’d have an easier time if the promise was made before 1998. If after 1998, then you had better follow the pretty clear statutory requirements for a contract to make a will because those requirements supersede other equitable statutes and are strictly enforced.
In Newton v. Lawson, the Georgia Court of Appeals reminded us of how strict the Georgia statutory requirements are for making an enforceable contract to make a will.Danny Doy Newton sued for specific performance of a contract to make a will. Newton claimed that Syble Lawson promised to leave Newton a life interest in her estate, with the remainder to her grandson Jason Lawson, in return for services provided by Newton.
Newton had lived with Syble for the 10 years prior to her death. Newton claimed that a few years after they moved in together, Syble began indicating that she would leave him a life interest in her house (provided he did not remarry); income from her pine straw business; income from a rental trailer; the right to harvest timber (which he would share with Jason); and the right to receive certain personal property. In consideration for these promises, Newton agreed to take care of Syble, take care of her dog, and perform upkeep and maintenance of the house and farm. Newton claimed that he gave up his job to care for Syble after she was diagnosed with cancer, took care of Syble until her death, continued to care for her dog after her death, remodeled Syble’s rental trailer, added a room to the house, and maintained the property. Newton claimed that all these acts were undertaken pursuant to the will contract.
Newton claimed that a 2000 will, which Syble revoked, tracked his agreement with Syble. The 2000 will left Newton a life estate in the house and the land provided he lives alone, with a remainder interest in Jason. Newton also claimed some notes supported the will contract. The notes were undated and unsigned, but appear to have been in Syble’s handwriting. The notes largely corresponded to the terms of the 2000 will.
Syble executed a new will in 2004, which did not name Newton as a beneficiary of her estate. In corresponding litigation and appeals, the Georgia Supreme Court affirmed a probate court‘s judgment validating Syble’s 2004 will. Newton did, however, receive a $50,000 certificate of deposit made payable to him on Syble’s death independent of any will. The CD was not part of Syble’s notes or a part of the will contract. Newton also admitted that Syble had paid his living expenses until her death and paid him $100 per month out of the rental income from the trailer. There was testimony that on several occasions Syble said that another person would inherit the farm, but Newton never protested based on the will contract.
Under Georgia law, if a contract to make a will is entered into after January 1, 1998, the contract must be in writing and signed by the one who undertakes to make a will or testamentary disposition. The alleged contract to make a will here was purportedly made after January 1, 1998, so it had to meet these requirements. Syble never signed a written contract memorializing the purported will contract. Newton argued, instead, that the 2000 will should have been admitted as evidence of the contract to make a will.
The 2000 will, however, was not a written contract promising to make a will for valuable consideration. Although it was signed by Syble, nothing in its terms reflected a promise to leave her estate to Newton in exchange for valuable consideration and nothing in the will irrevocably bound Syble to its terms. In other words, it was a revocable will that reflected Syble’s intent at the time she executed it and she subsequently changed her mind through the 2004 will.
Likewise, the notes had the same inadequacies as the 2000 will. The notes did not reflect the consideration Newton described as part of the will contract, and the notes did not embody any promise on Syble’s part.
Alternatively, Newton argued that he fell within the equitable exceptions that allow for specific performance of a parol contract as to land if the defendant admits the contract or if the contract has been so far executed by the party seeking relief and at the instance or by the inducements of the other party that if the contract were abandoned he could not be restored to his former position. Newton’s argument failed because the more specific provisions of Georgia’s contract to make a will statute controlled over the more general provisions of the equitable exception statute.
Even if the contract to make a will statute did not control, like the plaintiff in another recent Georgia case, Newton still failed to meet the requirements of the equitable exception statute. Newton failed to show that he had possession of Syble’s home or pine straw or timber sales and that he made valuable improvements thereto simply by virtue of Syble’s promise that she would use her will to leave him a life estate in these things. To the contrary, Newton testified that Syble paid him for the work he performed on the house and that he and Syble were a loving couple who shared the same bed, lived their daily lives together, and took care of one another and the home they shared.