Webb v. Webb, No. 15535

CourtSupreme Court of West Virginia
Writing for the CourtMcGRAW; Although there is no case law in this jurisdiction which describes the circumstances under which a disclaimer of interests by intestate succession may be set aside
Citation301 S.E.2d 570,171 W.Va. 614
PartiesChester David WEBB v. Lillian WEBB, etc., et al.
Docket NumberNo. 15535
Decision Date24 March 1983

Page 570

301 S.E.2d 570
171 W.Va. 614
Chester David WEBB
v.
Lillian WEBB, etc., et al.
No. 15535.
Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia.
March 24, 1983.

Page 572

[171 W.Va. 616] Syllabus by the Court

1. As a general rule, one who enters into a contract or performs some act while laboring under a mistake of material fact is entitled to have the transaction or the act set aside in a court of equity; however, an individual should not be permitted to avoid obligations he undertook while laboring under a mistake of law.

2. A mistake of fact consists of an unconscious ignorance or forgetfulness of a material fact, past or present, or of a mistaken belief in the past or present existence of a material fact which did not or does not actually exist. A mistake of law, on the other hand, consists of a mistaken opinion or inference arising from an imperfect exercise of judgment upon the facts as they really are and occurs when a person, having full knowledge of the facts, is ignorant of or comes to an erroneous conclusion as to the legal effect of his acts.

3. The determination of whether an error underlying the execution of a written instrument constitutes a mistake of fact or a mistake of law for purposes of setting aside that instrument should be controlled by the circumstances of each case.

4. A party cannot avoid the legal consequences of his actions on the ground of mistake, even a mistake of fact, where such mistake is the result of negligence on the part of the complaining party.

5. When a nonresident acts upon the advice of local counsel, whose knowledge of the local law is presumed as a matter of public policy and as a natural inference resulting from counsel's legal training and license to practice law, such nonresident cannot avoid the legal consequences of his actions on the ground of ignorance of the local law.

Robert J. Ashworth, Beckley, for appellant.

F. Alfred Sines, Beckley, for appellees.

McGRAW, Chief Justice:

This case comes to us on appeal from the final order of the Circuit Court of Raleigh County which dismissed a declaratory judgment action instituted by the appellant, Chester David Webb. The appellant commenced the civil suit to have a disclaimer of property interests by intestate succession declared void and set aside on the ground of mistake. The circuit court found that the mistake asserted by the appellant was one of law and concluded that the appellant was therefore entitled to no relief. We agree with the ruling of the circuit court, and we affirm.

On March 24, 1979, Chester G. Webb died intestate, survived by his widow, Lillian Webb, and one adopted son, appellant Chester David Webb. The decedent's estate included a one-half undivided interest in the marital abode of the decedent and Lillian Webb. Under the laws of descent and distribution, title to this interest passed to the appellant, as the only surviving child of the decedent, subject to the dower interest of Lillian Webb. W.Va.Code §§ 42-1-1; 43-1-1 (1982 Replacement Vol.). 1

Shortly after the funeral, the appellant and his mother consulted John Rist, a Beckley attorney. Believing that his father had desired Lillian Webb to have fee title to the real property, 2 the appellant sought Rist's

Page 573

legal advice on the best method of effecting the decedent's wishes. Upon Rist's inquiry as to his marital status, the appellant stated that he was single and had been living in his own home in Florida for the past ten years. It appears from the record [171 W.Va. 617] that prior to his father's death the appellant had twice been married and divorced, and that one of these marriages had produced a child, an infant daughter, who lived with her mother, Carol Webb. The appellant did not reveal this information to the attorney. Rist, who had no knowledge of the appellant's marriages and divorces, did not pursue the inquiry into the existence of any progeny. Rist advised the appellant that he could release his statutory share of the estate by means of a disclaimer of property interests passed by the law of intestate succession. Rist prepared the disclaimer, which was executed on April 3, 1979 and recorded on April 17, 1979.

Rist learned of the appellant's previous marriages and of the existence of the appellant's daughter in September 1979, when he was asked to represent the appellant in a nonsupport action brought by the child's mother in magistrate court in Beckley. Rist advised the appellant that, in these circumstances, the statutory effect of the disclaimer was to vest title to the appellant's share of the estate in his daughter rather than in his mother. The appellant instituted a declaratory judgment action in the circuit court to have the disclaimer declared void and set aside on the ground of mistake, naming Lillian Webb, Carol Webb and the infant child as parties defendant.

A hearing was held on April 10, 1981, at which the appellant testified that at the time of the discussion with Rist he was aware of the existence of the child, but that he did not think that fact was important and therefore made no mention of it. Rist's testimony indicates that he took the appellant's statement that he was single to mean that the appellant had never been married and had no children. Rist testified that had he known of the existence of the child, he would have advised the appellant to execute a deed conveying his interest in the estate to his mother, instead of the disclaimer. Although some testimony was elicited indicating that Rist, the appellant and Lillian Webb had discussed the tax advantages of executing a disclaimer, it is apparent from the record that the appellant's motivation in executing the disclaimer was to pass full title to the real estate to his mother, Lillian Webb, in accordance with his perception of his father's wishes.

From this evidence, the circuit court concluded that the mistake of the appellant in executing the disclaimer was a mistake of law rather than a mistake of fact, and denied relief on that ground. By order entered November 13, 1981, the lower court denied the appellant's petition for declaratory judgment and dismissed the civil action. It is from this order that the appellant now prosecutes this appeal.

The appellant contends that the circuit court erred in concluding that the disclaimer was executed while the appellant was laboring under a mistake of law. In the alternative, the appellant argues that even if the circuit court believed that the appellant had committed a mistake of law, relief should have been granted since the appellant was a nonresident of this State and acted under the advice of local counsel as to the laws of this State.

Before we turn to the issues raised by the appellant, a brief discussion of the nature of the disclaimer executed by the appellant is in order. The disclaimer in this case was governed by the provisions of W.Va.Code § 42-4-3 [1977], the statute in effect at the time of Chester G. Webb's death. 3 That statute provides, in pertinent part:

Page 574

Any heir at law or distributee under the laws of descent and distribution who is sui juris, shall have the right, within six months of the date of death of the decedent, to disclaim such real or personal property in whole or in part. The property so disclaimed shall pass by the laws of descent and distribution of this State as if the...

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20 practice notes
  • Robertson v. LeMaster, No. 15543
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of West Virginia
    • March 24, 1983
    ...W.Va. 142, 133 S.E.2d 710 (1963); Smith v. Penn Line Service, Inc., 145 W.Va. 1, 113 S.E.2d 505 (1960); Hartley v. Crede, 140 W.Va. 133, [171 W.Va. 614] 82 S.E.2d 672 (1954); Wilson v. Edwards, 138 W.Va. 613, 77 S.E.2d 164 The theory advanced by the appellants at trial was that LeMaster's n......
  • Chesapeake Appalachia, L.L.C. v. Hickman, Nos. 14–0921
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of West Virginia
    • November 18, 2015
    ...material fact is entitled to have the transaction or the act set aside in a court of equity[.]" Syllabus Point 1, in part, Webb v. Webb, 171 W.Va. 614, 301 S.E.2d 570 (1983). "A mistake of fact consists of an unconscious ignorance or forgetfulness of a material fact, past or present, or of ......
  • McGinnis v. Cayton, No. 15658
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of West Virginia
    • January 27, 1984
    ...a mistake of fact, where such mistake is the result of negligence on the part of the complaining party. Syl. Pt. 4, Webb v. Webb, W.Va., 301 S.E.2d 570 (1983). Furthermore, the petitioners have allowed the contract to stand unchallenged for some time. "A court of equity has always refused i......
  • W. Va. Dep't of Transp. v. Veach, No. 16-0326
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of West Virginia
    • April 17, 2017
    ...having full knowledge of the facts, is ignorant of or comes to an erroneous conclusion as to the legal effect of his acts.Webb v. Webb , 171 W.Va. 614, 618, 301 S.E.2d 570, 574–75 (1983) (internal citations omitted). "[A] party may not avoid the legal consequences on the ground of mistake, ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
20 cases
  • Robertson v. LeMaster, No. 15543
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of West Virginia
    • March 24, 1983
    ...W.Va. 142, 133 S.E.2d 710 (1963); Smith v. Penn Line Service, Inc., 145 W.Va. 1, 113 S.E.2d 505 (1960); Hartley v. Crede, 140 W.Va. 133, [171 W.Va. 614] 82 S.E.2d 672 (1954); Wilson v. Edwards, 138 W.Va. 613, 77 S.E.2d 164 The theory advanced by the appellants at trial was that LeMaster's n......
  • Chesapeake Appalachia, L.L.C. v. Hickman, Nos. 14–0921
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of West Virginia
    • November 18, 2015
    ...material fact is entitled to have the transaction or the act set aside in a court of equity[.]" Syllabus Point 1, in part, Webb v. Webb, 171 W.Va. 614, 301 S.E.2d 570 (1983). "A mistake of fact consists of an unconscious ignorance or forgetfulness of a material fact, past or present, or of ......
  • McGinnis v. Cayton, No. 15658
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of West Virginia
    • January 27, 1984
    ...a mistake of fact, where such mistake is the result of negligence on the part of the complaining party. Syl. Pt. 4, Webb v. Webb, W.Va., 301 S.E.2d 570 (1983). Furthermore, the petitioners have allowed the contract to stand unchallenged for some time. "A court of equity has always refused i......
  • W. Va. Dep't of Transp. v. Veach, No. 16-0326
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of West Virginia
    • April 17, 2017
    ...having full knowledge of the facts, is ignorant of or comes to an erroneous conclusion as to the legal effect of his acts.Webb v. Webb , 171 W.Va. 614, 618, 301 S.E.2d 570, 574–75 (1983) (internal citations omitted). "[A] party may not avoid the legal consequences on the ground of mistake, ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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