Morris v. United Virginia Bank

Decision Date03 March 1989
Docket NumberNo. 860830,860830
PartiesRobert H. MORRIS v. UNITED VIRGINIA BANK, Executor, etc., et al. Record
CourtVirginia Supreme Court

Bowlman T. Bowles, Jr. (David T. Whitehead; Robin M. Morgan; Bowles & Whitehead, Richmond, on briefs), for appellant.

William R. Mauck, Jr. (Sandy T. Tucker, Williams, Mullen, Christian & Dobbins, P.C., Richmond, on brief), for appellee United Virginia Bank, Executor of the Estate of Mary Hey Caudle.

Thomas F. Coates, III (Coates & Davenport, Richmond, on brief), for appellees David A. Hey, Suzanne Hey Gilmore, Sarah Hey Atkins and Richard Hey.

No argument or brief, for appellee Julia A. Morris.

Present: All the Justices.

RUSSELL, Justice.

This is an appeal from an order sustaining exceptions to a report filed by the commissioner of accounts. The dispositive question is whether the court erroneously substituted its judgment for that of the commissioner without finding that the commissioner's report was unsupported by the evidence.

Mary Hey Caudle was a childless widow residing in Richmond who died on July 30, 1983, at the age of 94. She had been a successful business-woman for many years and remained fully alert and mentally competent until her death. The natural objects of her bounty were nieces and nephews. She was particularly generous to two nephews, David Hey, who lived in California, and Robert Howell Morris, who lived in Richmond.

The large home in which Mrs. Caudle resided alone was broken into by burglars on two occasions in 1980. She became afraid to remain there, but did not want to go into a nursing home. Mr. Morris, on several occasions, offered to provide room, board, and personal care for her in his home. He testified that Mrs. Caudle said, "I had whole lot rather pay y'all than a nursing home at the nursing home rate than go to the nursing home...." On January 2, 1981, she moved into the Morris home on that understanding.

Later that month, Mrs. Caudle had three documents prepared which she signed in the presence of two disinterested witnesses. One document reads:

January 25, 1981

To Whom it May Concern,

It was my decision prior to making my home with R. Howell Morris and his family on January 2, 1981 that I pay whatever the rate would be at a nursing home to him for my room, board and care. It is my desire to do this in a lump sum at my death. This is not to include any of my medical care or doctor's fees, only room, board and care.

I suggest that the rates at Chesterfield Nursing Home be used to compute this at my death, since that is where I would wish to go if it became necessary due to a condition that made it impossible to be cared for in Howell's home.

I hereby direct United Virginia Bank to pay computed sum beginning January 2, 1981 until my death or such date as I no longer reside with R. Howell Morris.

                /s/ Mary H. Caudle
                  /s/ C.H. Adams     1"29"81
                -------------------  -------
                      witness         date
                /s/ Athleen M.Adams  1"29"81
                -------------------  -------
                      witness         date
                

The second document purports to distribute Mrs. Caudle's personal property among various family members, effective at her death. The third document purports to leave her house to Robert Howell Morris, if it was not sold before her death. The witnesses to Mrs. Caudle's signature testified that they were not informed of the contents of these papers and that the Morrises were not present when they were executed. Mr. Morris testified that he was unaware of the documents until Mrs. Caudle gave them to him shortly before her death in 1983.

During Mrs. Caudle's 30 months of residence in the Morris home, she had a room of her own but shared the living and dining rooms with the family. Mrs. Morris prepared all Mrs. Caudle's meals in accordance with her special dietary requirements and saw to her other personal needs. Mr. Morris took care of her banking, maintained her former house, and ran errands for her. She made various gifts of money and other things of value to the Morrises.

Mrs. Caudle executed a will dated June 24, 1983, in the month before her death. The will disposed of her tangible personal property but left the residue of her estate to the United Virginia Bank, as trustee under an inter-vivos trust she had established ten years earlier, which she amended and re-adopted. The will and amended trust agreement made dispositions of her estate among numerous relatives, and increased the legacies previously provided for the Morrises, but made no mention of the three documents dated January 25, 1981.

After Mrs. Caudle's death, Mr. Morris presented a claim to the commissioner of accounts for compensation based on the rates charged by the Chesterfield County Nursing Home during the 30 months of Mrs. Caudle's residence in his home, in accordance with the document dated January 25, 1981. The claim was contested by the executor and four of the residuary trust beneficiaries (the contestants). At a debts-and-demands hearing, the commissioner heard the testimony of twelve witnesses and received documentary evidence. The evidence concerning Mrs. Caudle's relationship with the Morrises was in sharp conflict.

Mr. Morris contended that a contract existed between himself and Mrs. Caudle, that he had fully performed his part of it, and that he was entitled to the compensation agreed upon. Alternatively, he argued that he was entitled to compensation on a quantum meruit basis. The contestants contended that the writings dated January 25, 1981, were testamentary in character and that they were therefore revoked by Mrs. Caudle's later will. Even if the Morrises were entitled to quantum meruit compensation, they argued, Mrs. Caudle's gifts to them during her lifetime had provided adequate compensation.

The commissioner's report found in favor of the Morris claim. The commissioner ruled that "the claimant and the decedent agreed verbally that the claimant would be compensated at nursing home rates for services provided the decedent during such time as she remained with him." The commissioner also ruled that the requirement of corroboration, imposed by Code § 8.01-397, was fully met by the document dated January 25, 1981, which Mrs. Caudle had signed before disinterested witnesses and delivered to Mr. Morris shortly before her death. Accepting the rates charged by the Chesterfield County Nursing Home, as established by the evidence, the commissioner allowed the claim against the estate in the amount of $48,100, with interest at 6% from the date of death.

The contestants filed exceptions to the commissioner's report. The circuit court initially set the exceptions for jury trial, as authorized by Code § 26-33, but thereafter, by agreement of counsel, agreed to hear the exceptions ore tenus upon the record made before the commissioner and upon such further evidence as the parties might present.

At the hearing on the exceptions, four witnesses testified. One of these, a trust officer at the executor bank, merely testified to the size of the estate. Another witness repeated the evidence given before the commissioner with respect to the rates charged at the Chesterfield County Nursing Home. The third was Marjorie Hey Murdock, a niece of Mrs. Caudle's, who had testified before the commissioner. Her testimony demonstrated marked hostility to the Morrises and essentially repeated her earlier assertions that the relationship between the Morrises and Mrs. Caudle was poor.

The final witness was Douglas W. Conner, an attorney. Mr. Conner had drafted Mrs. Caudle's last will and inter-vivos trust and had represented the executor bank at the commissioner's hearing. Before the commissioner, Mr. Conner had cross-examined Mr. Morris extensively with regard to an estate-planning conference at the Morris home on June 20, 1983, attended by both Morrises, Mrs. Caudle, and Mr. Conner. He sought to establish that no mention...

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