Monday, September 06, 2010

In Re Estate of Ziegler (Cal. Ct. App. - Aug. 31, 2010)

This is justice.


This is justice?

Paul Ziegler was a retired school teacher in poor health. In 2000, Richard and Irma LaQue rented the house next door. About six months later, LaQue started doing Ziegler's plumbing, mowing his lawn, and doing other handyman work. Ziegler said he didn't have any relatives, and his friends only visited once or twice a year.

Starting in 2003 or 2004, Ziegler repeatedly told the LaQues that he wanted them to have his house, explaining that "he wanted somebody that's going to take care of the house that his mom and dad worked so hard for" rather than having it go to the government. When, in 2005, after a bout of flu, Ziegler stopped taking his daily walk, the LaQues began bringing him meals, making sure he ate, and Irma started cleaning his house twice a week.

Later that year, Ziegler was hospitalized, and LaQue visited him every day. When Ziegler got out of the hospital, he stopped leaving his out at all, and the LaQues continued to bring him meals, helped him get dressed, prepared his bath for him, and ran errands.

Finally, in late 2005, Ziegler asked the LaQues to come over, and Ziegler dictated and all parties signed a document -- one witnessed by others and the authenticity of which is undisputed -- that said:

“I Paul Daniel Ziegler home owner of 820 E. G St in Colton, California 92324, am signing over my home and property to Richard H. LaQue Sr. This written agreement between myself and Richard is for the exchange of my care and daily meals. This written note will be immediately active if and when I no longer can reside in my home due to death.”

The LaQues continued to care for Ziegler, who eventually got sick and was hospitalized, and they took care of the home during the extended period Ziegler was in the hospital. Eventually, Ziegler died. The LaQues arranged for Ziegler to be buried next to his wife. Relying on the agreement, the LaQues then moved into the house.

A Public Administrator eventually administers Ziegler's estate. There are no relatives. Or, more accurately, no relatives that really matter. But for a (big) piece of the pie, a company -- W.C. Cox & Company -- digs up nine residents of Germany who claim to be Ziegler's heirs, and demands the house. At which point LaQue says: "But I have a written contract." To which Cox says: "True. But I see that you filed that contract with the administrator one year and three weeks after Ziegler died. That's three weeks too late. There's a statute that says that, unlike regular contracts, contracts like this one (e.g., with a decedent for personal services in return for property at death) have to be filed within a year. So we -- and the heirs we found -- get the house, not you. Even though none of us ever knew or cared for the dude at all."

The trial court rejects Cox's argument. But the Court of Appeal reverses. It gives the house to Cox. And, in the last line of the opinion, also awards Cox costs. LaQue can't recover anything at all for the value of his services. Not contract, not quantum meruit, nothing. And he gets to pay Cox for the privilege of providing services to LaQue.

Let me make this clear, however. The Court of Appeal is probably right about the law. There's a one-year statute. It likely applies. The claim was indeed filed one year and three weeks late. A filing that was overdue, though there's absolutely no prejudice that resulted therefrom.

What's the right result? Give the house to LaQue anyway? Affirm in an unpublished opinion? Give the house to Cox but don't award costs? Split the baby? What's right here.

Law versus equity.