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Michael Williamson v. George Williamson

March 27, 2013


Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Ida County, Steven J. Andreasen, Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Danilson, J.

Michael Williamson appeals the district court's grant of specific performance of what he alleges was only part of a real estate contract. George Williamson, in his individual capacity and as executor of the estate of Catherine Williamson, appeals the district court's denial of counterclaims. AFFIRMED IN PART AND REVERSED IN PART.

Heard by Eisenhauer, C.J., and Danilson and Bower, JJ.

This is an appeal in an action for specific performance seeking an order for a court officer deed for land allegedly sold on contract. The claim is premised upon a tender of the amount due. The amount due and the land subject to the contract are in dispute. The estate and George have also appealed the denial of some of their counterclaims. Upon our review, we affirm in part and reverse in part.

I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

Michael and George are brothers and sons of Catherine and Gordon

Williamson. Their dispute concerns two parcels of rural real estate and some personal property.

Gordon owned a parcel of land known as the Farm Acreage. He died in December 2005. During Catherine's lifetime, she purchased two parcels of land, the east field and the west field, which were adjacent to Gordon's property. The couple also owned a homestead in the city of Battle Creek. Catherine died in April 2008.

Catherine and Gordon offered various forms of support to their sons during their lifetimes. They allowed Michael to live rent-free in the house on the Farm Acreage. Catherine and Gordon also paid at least $35,000 of George's legal fees and forgave a $20,000 promissory note related to George's dissolution in 1999 and a slander judgment in favor of his ex-spouse in the sum of $50,000.

Catherine and Gordon made a series of conveyances to their sons on August 7, 2000. They conveyed the Farm Acreage to Michael by quit claim deed, for consideration of "love and affection". They also conveyed their Battle Creek residence to their sons as tenants in common.

In an effort to protect family property from execution of George's ex-wife's judgment, George and Michael conveyed the property back to their parents in 2001. In 2003, Catherine and Gordon re-conveyed the Battle Creek residence to Michael only.

On August 7, 2000, Gordon and Catherine also executed an installment contract to sell farmland to Michael for $75,000. The short form real estate contract*fn1 described the land conveyed by reference to an attached legal description. The instrument recorded on August 8, 2000 did not include the west field.*fn2 After Catherine's death, Michael re-recorded the contract on February 19, 2009, with a different legal description reflecting transfer of both the east and west fields.

Michael obtained a mortgage secured by both the east and west fields in 2007. Ida County plat records list Michael as the owner of both parcels. Michael paid real estate taxes on both parcels from 2001 through November 2009.*fn3

On March 5, 2004, Daniel D. Williamson, Gordon's brother, was appointed conservator for Catherine. In December 2005, Gordon passed away and, notwithstanding the existence of the conservatorship, Catherine executed a general power of attorney naming Michael as her attorney-in-fact. Catherine revoked that power of attorney on January 24, 2006. She entered a nursing home in February of 2006 and changed her will to leave her estate to George alone.

In 2006, the brothers had substantial ongoing conflict.*fn4 George requested return of personal property with primarily sentimental value, which Michael allegedly refused. Michael allegedly accused George of stealing a safe and jewelry from Catherine's home in Battle Creek, and made allegations of dependent adult abuse against George.

In February 2006, Daniel Williamson declined to serve as Catherine's conservator, citing personal and professional conflicts of interest.*fn5 George and his son sought to be appointed substitute conservators for Catherine. George alleges his action was prompted by Catherine's concern about dissipation of her property and assets. Days later, Michael also sought to be appointed the successor conservator, alleging Catherine was not competent to appoint her grandson as her attorney-in-fact and George as her alternate attorney-in-fact, and that her signed consent to substitution of the conservator was not knowingly and voluntarily executed. The district court appointed an attorney to serve as guardian ad litem for Catherine*fn6 and also ordered appointment of a special master to investigate allegations of impropriety and criminal activity.*fn7

The special master conducted hearings and filed a report. George objected to the report. The special master then filed an enlarged report, and the court set a hearing.*fn8 The probate court entered its findings of fact, conclusions of law, and decree on August 20, 2007. The court adopted the special master's findings of fact.*fn9 It noted the "fundamental issue presented continues to be the competing applications of George and Michael Williamson to be appointed conservator for their mother's estate."

In April 2008, Catherine passed away. George was appointed executor of Catherine's estate.*fn10

In April 2009, Michael tendered a check to the estate in the sum of $39,033.61, an amount he believed represented a payoff of the contract balance. The estate refused to negotiate the instrument because it was tendered as payment in full, and the estate contends the amount tendered did not satisfy the amount due. Michael demanded delivery of the deed to the farmland pursuant to the real estate contract, but George in his capacity as executor denied the request, claiming that Michael failed to satisfy his obligations for payment of the purchase price and real estate taxes,*fn11 and was therefore not entitled to receive the deed in satisfaction of the contract.

On May 27, 2009, Michael filed a petition for specific performance of the contract for purchase of the farmland. George, in his capacity as executor, filed an answer with affirmative defenses contending Michael not only failed to make payments in satisfaction of the written contract, but he also failed to make payments to George, which were allegedly due pursuant to an oral trust agreement between Gordon, Catherine, George, and Michael.*fn12 George claims the agreement was to sell the real estate to Michael for fifty percent of the then fair market value.

Michael initiated this action against George in his capacity as executor of Catherine's estate. However, George filed a counterclaim in both his individual capacity and his capacity as executor of Catherine's estate, alleging Catherine and Gordon intended for their children to "share equally in the value" of the real estate. He asserted claims for declaratory judgment of the farm real estate and the Battle Creek residence,*fn13 replevin and conversion claims regarding personal property, as well as claims of abuse of process, defamation, invasion of privacy, wrongful possession, fraudulent misrepresentation, and slander of title. George never sought joinder to be a party to this action in his individual capacity.

The district court acknowledged that to the extent the findings and conclusions of the special master were specifically adopted by the probate court in the conservatorship proceedings, the parties may be precluded from relitigating those issues.*fn14

After finding that the testimony of both parties lacked credibility, the district court concluded:

Michael is entitled to an order of specific performance in regard to the farm contract. Michael has complied or substantially complied with his payment obligations. To the extent he did not fully satisfy such payment obligations, he tendered a check to the [e]state and was ready, willing and able to fully comply with his payment obligations. The tender was refused by the [e]state.*fn15

With respect to the land made the subject of the contract, the court concluded that Michael was only entitled to specific performance as to the east field. The court acknowledged some evidence to the contrary but "the best evidence in regard to the terms of the farm contract and the land included in such farm contract . . . is the certified copy of the original farm contract." In reaching this conclusion, the court also questioned the need for Michael to rerecord the original farm contract and the timing of such rerecording when the "disputes and the litigation were in full force." Thus, the estate was granted a declaratory judgment with respect to the west field.

The court further determined: (1) the estate was not entitled to any additional damages resulting from rents or profits from the west field; (2) personal property previously stored in the homestead, now in Michael's possession, was either gifted to Michael or Catherine and Gordon consented to Michael's possession; (3) George failed to establish his conversion claim including the pool table that was located in the Battle Creek residence at the time of Catherine's death; and (4) George established his claim against Michael for conversion of a box of personal affects. All other counterclaims and amended counterclaims were dismissed.

Michael appeals, contending issue preclusion should apply, entitling him to specific performance of the contract for both the east and west field parcels.

On appeal George and the estate contend the court erred in determining the contract balance due from Michael and in awarding specific performance with respect to the east field. They further contend Michael is indebted to the estate for $5000 in rent he received from a tenant for use of the west field, and for conversion of some of Catherine's personal property located in the Battle Creek dwelling. George personally contends that Michael converted a pool table of his that was located in the Battle Creek residence.

II. Scope and Standard of Review.

Actions for specific performance of a contract are matters of equity. We review equitable matters de novo. Iowa R. App. P. 6.907. While we give weight to the factual findings of the district court, we are not bound by them. Iowa R. App. P. 6.904(3)(g). The burden of proof when the relief requested is specific performance is ...

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