Father’s Oral Promise To Will All To Son May Be Enforced

JULY 28, 1997 VOLUME 5, NUMBER 4

From all reports, John Housley must have been a cantankerous and eccentric fellow. The Poway, California man had been a widower since 1957, and became almost a recluse in the twenty years before his death by self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1994.

John Housley had two children, Brian and Joan. Brian had lived with his father for thirty years after his mother’s death (he was an adult when she died), and helped his father build the house he lived in during most of that period. Other than a short stint in the armed forces, Brian spent most of his adult life living with, and caring for, his father.

After John Housley retired (he had been a pipe fitter) in 1973, he became more of a miser and junk collector. When son Brian tried to clean the house, his father became angry and threatened him. When the house became so cluttered and squalid as to be unlivable, Brian moved out in 1989. That was the same year that John Housley’s life began to focus on one single thing: a road-widening project by the city of Poway.

John Housley believed that the road-widening project destroyed the value of his property. Over the next five years, he spent over $100,000 in legal fees battling the City in court. Although he was awarded a $250,000 judgment, after appeals he ultimately collected only $40,000 from his legal battle. He blamed Brian for the loss, despite the fact that Brian had helped him collect information, taken him to lawyers’ offices and court, and even loaned him money for his lawsuit.

During the three decades that John and Brian lived together, according to Brian, his father often promised that he would leave his estate to Brian in return for the care he was providing. Based on that belief, Brian took his father to his own home for a daily evening meal even after he moved out of his father’s house. By the end of John’s life, Brian was paying for virtually all John’s living expenses except his property taxes.

One month before he killed himself, John Housley delivered a $35,000 check to Brian (representing repayment of money Brian had loaned his father to pursue his lawsuit), along with a note demanding rent from Brian for all the years he had lived with his father. Three weeks before his death, John changed his will and trust to remove Brian as a beneficiary.

Brian Housley brought suit to enforce what he asserted was his father’s promise to leave his estate to Brian. Unfortunately, California law (both California and Arizona, like most states, have adopted a version of the old English “Statute of Frauds”) requires that such promises must ordinarily be in writing. The California court threw Brian’s lawsuit out, and Brian appealed.

The California Court of Appeals has now ruled that, despite the law, Brian may be able to prove that his father promised him the estate. To prevent Brian from showing the oral agreement would permit an unfair result; John Housley would have gotten the benefit of Brian’s caretaking without having to pay the agreed-upon price. For that reason, the Court of Appeals has sent the Housley case back to the trial court for further fact-finding. Estate of Housley, California Court of Appeals, June 26, 1997.

Brian Housley’s job is not completed, however. The Court of Appeals has given him an opportunity to make his case, but he must still prove that his father promised to leave him the property. Although he may try to prove that through his own testimony about promises made by John Housley, he must convince the trial court that he is reporting an actual agreement, not fabricating a promise after the fact.

It is precisely the fear of such fabrication that resulted in the adoption of the Statute of Frauds in the first place. Although the statute is intended to prevent frauds, its strict application in cases like John Housley’s could result in the perpetration of a fraud on Brian Housley, which the courts will not tolerate.

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