Vega v. Estate of Mullen, 07-CA-59600

Decision Date20 March 1991
Docket NumberNo. 07-CA-59600,07-CA-59600
Citation583 So.2d 1259
PartiesRomeo VEGA and Martha Vega v. ESTATE OF Martha D. MULLEN.
CourtMississippi Supreme Court

James R. Hayden, Hattiesburg, for appellants.

Samuel E. Farris, Hattiesburg, for appellee.

Before HAWKINS, P.J., and ROBERTSON and BANKS, JJ.

BANKS, Justice, for the Court:

INTRODUCTION

Romeo and Martha Vega appeal from a judgment of the Chancery Court of Forrest County canceling a deed in their favor. At

issue are questions of undue influence and failure of consideration. Concluding that the challenged judgment is the result of manifest error as to undue influence and failure of consideration, we reverse and remand for further consideration of the issue of damages. Subsequent to the final entry of judgment below, Martha D. Mullen died. Pursuant to his request, Samuel E. Farris, Executor of Mrs. Mullen's estate, has been substituted as a party in her place.

FACTS

Plaintiff-Appellee Martha D. Mullen was an eighty-eight (88) year old widow at the time of the trial and eighty-six (86) at the time she executed the deed in question. She was the mother of three children, Mrs. Mildred Dunn, Mrs. Emily Puclyouski, and Mr. T.A. Kyle. (Mr. Kyle died three months prior to the filing of the Complaint to Cancel the Deed.) Prior to March 17, 1986, Mrs. Mullen was the sole owner of a house and two (2) acres of land valued at approximately sixty thousand dollars ($60,000.00). Although it is not legally relevant, it is interesting that the land was given to Mrs. Mullen by Martha Vega.

Defendant-Appellant Martha Vega is the wife of co-appellant Romeo Vega, the granddaughter of Martha Mullen, and the daughter of Mildred Dunn.

In addition to suffering the normal ravages of age, Mrs. Mullen suffered numerous afflictions including hearing and sight impairments, heart problems, diabetes, arteriosclerosis, and arthritis. She was dependent on the aid of a walker but remained in a wheelchair most of the time. In August 1984, a stroke hospitalized Mrs. Mullen for approximately three (3) weeks. Although there was no paralysis, because of her physical infirmities, it was no longer feasible for her to live in her home alone. Mrs. Mullen continued to manage her own personal financial affairs, including maintaining bank accounts and paying bills.

Her children were advancing in age and of poor health as well, but each shared the responsibility of caring for Mrs. Mullen. According to testimony, Mrs. Mullen was difficult to care for and difficult to please. She lived with her elder daughter Mrs. Dunn until Mrs. Dunn's second daughter moved from home because the daughter could no longer take her grandmother's verbal abuse. Because Mrs. Dunn was unable to care for her mother alone, Mrs. Mullen moved to Mrs. Puclyouski's home.

Testimony indicates that Mrs. Mullen had been at her younger daughter's home only a few months when she began expressing unhappiness and displeasure at being there. Mrs. Beverly Williamson, the nurses aid who had been attending Mrs. Mullen three (3) times a week and who was still Mrs. Mullen's aid at the time of trial, testified that Mrs. Mullen expressed her unhappiness. Mrs. Williamson added that there was evidence that the only baths Mrs. Mullen received were those she received on Mrs. Williamson's visits. There were questions about whether Mrs. Puclyouski fed her mother properly and there was testimony that Mrs. Puclyouski did not allow her mother to watch television.

Mrs. Mullen testified that she was not dissatisfied living with Mrs. Puclyouski. She disputed that she called Mrs. Vega and asked to go home as indicated by Mrs. Vega and added that it was at Mrs. Vega's urging that she left her daughter's to return to her home.

In any event, it is undisputed that in October 1985, Mrs. Vega offered to have the utilities turned back on at her grandmother's house which had been vacant for sometime, to leave her home, and to take her grandmother from Mrs. Puclyouski's to Mrs. Mullen's home for a two week vacation. Mrs. Vega, her husband and her son lived in Purvis where they owned a double-wide mobile home and sixty (60) acres of land on which they raised horses for sale. Mrs. Vega left her family and her business to stay with Mrs. Mullen for what was intended to be a two-week vacation for Mrs. Mullen as well as her aunt Mrs. Puclyouski. When the two-week period expired, Mrs. Mullen did not want to return to her daughter's. Upon her grandmother's insistence Mrs. Vega joined by her husband remained with Mrs. Mullen in her Mrs. Vega testified that she bathed Mrs. Mullen daily, prepared all of her meals, picked up her medicine, and monitored her constantly. On numerous occasions the Vegas attempted to leave and return home, but on the insistence of the family and Mrs. Mullen, they remained in Mrs. Mullen's home and continued to care for her. Mrs. Mullen testified to the contrary suggesting that Mrs. Vega failed to feed her properly and verbally abused her.

home. The Vegas left their son in Purvis to attend to the horses.

Three (3) months after Mrs. Vega began caring for her grandmother, the Vegas sold their horse farm. Mrs. Vega sold her small car and bought a larger car in which Mrs. Mullen would be more comfortable. The relationship between Mrs. Vega and her grandmother continued to deteriorate, however, and shortly after the sale of the farm, the Vegas wanted to leave again. They went as far as to rent a house but were stopped from moving by Mrs. Dunn and Mrs. Puclyouski. According to testimony by both Mrs. Vega and Mrs. Mullen, in an attempt to stay under her granddaughter's care, Mrs. Mullen told Mrs. Vega, who was characterized by Mrs. Mullen and other family members as Mrs. Mullen's favorite granddaughter, "let me make you a will to my property and you take care of me."

Early in March 1986, Mrs. Mullen requested Glenn White, an attorney whom she considered to be her lawyer, to come to her house to talk with her about preparing a will. Mr. White was then the District Attorney and was not engaged in the practice of law. He brought Jeff Stewart, a practicing lawyer, to Mrs. Mullen's home. Mr. Stewart was instructed to prepare the proposed will as directed by Mrs. Mullen, leaving the house and real property to Mr. and Mrs. Vega and dividing her personal property among her children. He was to return with the prepared will when called by Mrs. Mullen. He prepared the will but was never called by Mrs. Mullen. At the time of trial, the will had never been executed.

Approximately one week after Mr. White and Mr. Stewart visited with Mrs. Mullen in her home, Mr. Kyle came from Louisiana to meet with his mother and his sisters to determine the future care of Mrs. Mullen. She had become so unbearable that the Vegas wanted to leave again. Mrs. Mullen testified that the four of them met alone in her home on Sunday, March 16, 1986. She and her children discussed her condition and the undesirable possibility of putting her in a convalescent home. Neither of the Vegas was present during this meeting.

Upon the suggestion of Mr. Kyle, Mrs. Mullen and her family agreed that Mrs. Mullen would deed her property to the Vega's reserving a life estate therein in exchange for their continued care of her and continued maintenance of the property. This agreement was reduced to a writing signed by Mrs. Mullen and each of her children. It is as follows:

I, Martha D. Mullen do hereby deed this property to Romeo & Martha Vega. That this is my home that they will take care of me as long as I live. They will pay the bills and up keep of this property and pay all the bills (light bill, water bills, Grocery bills etc. that I just pay for my doc bills & medicine. Any time they don't want to take care of me this deed is null & void. The children are here and signing this to make sure that this is carried out. (Errors in the original.)

The next day, Monday, March 17, 1986, was Mrs. Dunn's birthday. Mrs. Vega testified that she suggested that Mrs. Dunn, Mrs. Mullen and she go for a steak. She testified that Mrs. Mullen requested that while they were out that they also see an attorney to draft the deed discussed the previous evening. Because she would be in her wheelchair, Mrs. Mullen asked that Mrs. Vega find an attorney that would be easily accessible to her.

Mrs. Mullen, Mrs. Dunn and Mrs. Vega went to the office of William (Billy) Andrews, III, an attorney in Purvis, Mississippi. Mrs. Vega testified that James Cook of Hattiesburg was her regular attorney and that the only prior dealing she had had with Mr. Andrews arose with regard to the selling of their farm. Mr. Andrews represented Mr. Andrews testified that Mrs. Mullen, Mrs. Dunn and Mrs. Vega came into his office to have a deed drafted. After receiving the document that contained Mrs. Mullen's desires and wishes, Mr. Andrews stated that Mrs. Mullen reiterated that she wanted a deed transferring her property to the Vega's reserving a life estate and providing that they take care of her and maintain the property.

the doctor who purchased the farm. Neither Mrs. Dunn nor Mrs. Mullen had any prior dealings with Mr. Andrews. She indicated that she chose Andrews because of the accessibility of his office to a wheelchair.

Because Mrs. Vega was not Mrs. Mullen's daughter, Mr. Andrews indicated that he discussed in detail her wishes and explained the difference in a will and a deed. Additionally, he took notes of the meeting which were introduced into evidence. At no time during the discussion did he detect health problems that impaired Mrs. Mullen's decision-making capacity, nor did Mrs. Mullen ever mention that she had asked Mr. Stewart to draft a will.

Mrs. Mullen told Mr. Andrews that she had discussed the deed with her children, prayed about it, and decided that executing the deed was what she wanted to do. His professional opinion was that Mrs. Mullen knew exactly what she was doing at the time she...

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