“Vest Pocket” Deed Is Valid to Transfer Family Farmland

OCTOBER 25, 2010 VOLUME 17 NUMBER 33
It has been a while since we wrote about “vest pocket” deeds. That reflects the reality that they are more common in fiction and mythology than in the real world of legal proceedings, but they occasionally do crop up. The problems of validity and effect can involve lawyers after the signer’s death, even in cases where avoiding legal complications was the signer’s primary goal.

Cecil Stockwell lived all of his 91 years in rural South Dakota. He acquired and farmed land totaling over 1,000 acres in 14 parcels. He had five children; for the last twenty years of his life he lived (and was farming partners) with his son Lloyd Stockwell.

In 1992 Cecil Stockwell visited a local lawyer in Freeman, SD, about estate planning. He had the attorney prepare a power of attorney naming Lloyd as his agent, plus four separate deeds to his properties. Each deed conveyed a different number of acres of land to one of his four sons — Lloyd, for instance, would receive 594 acres, and his oldest son Cecil, Jr., would receive 80 acres. Each of the four deeds retained for Cecil the right to farm, rent or use the land; on his death the four deeds would have conveyed their respective properties to his sons.

“Would have” is the operative phrase here. Cecil never recorded the deeds, and he never gave any of them to his sons. He took them home and filed them away. They became what are sometimes called “vest pocket” or, more simply, “pocket” deeds. They would not be effective until actually delivered to the recipients or recorded; their effect if discovered after Cecil’s death would be uncertain.

Cecil did not let the deeds create that confusion, however. In 2001, after he became unhappy with one of his sons, Cecil Stockwell asked his daughter-in-law to help him redraft the old, undelivered deeds. With her help he modified the properties that would be transferred to each of his sons, with the result that Lloyd’s inheritance would be significantly larger. One son (the one he had become unhappy with) was left out entirely, one’s share stayed the same, and the fourth son’s share was reduced somewhat.

After he signed all three of the new deeds and had them notarized, Cecil returned home and handed them to Lloyd, saying “Here you go” or words to that effect. Lloyd took the deeds into his father’s bedroom (remember that he lived with Lloyd) and put them in the dresser that Cecil used.

Two years later there was more family disharmony when three of Cecil’s sons initiated a guardianship and conservatorship action, seeking to have him put in a nursing home. Lloyd helped him get a lawyer to fight the petition; in the course of that proceeding his lawyer had a videotape prepared showing Cecil’s ability to identify all of his children and describe where they lived and what they did for a living. He did get the size of his farm wrong (he said 300 acres, when it was really more than 1,000 acres), and he had trouble naming one of his grandchildren or remembering that his ex-wife had remarried.

Six months after the guardianship petition was initiated Lloyd told Cecil that it was time for him to move into a nursing home. Cecil reminded Lloyd that the deeds were still in the dresser drawer, told him to get them out and have them recorded. Then he asked to be taken on a last tour of his farmland and moved into the nursing home. Lloyd had the deeds recorded a few days later. Four months after that Cecil died.

Lloyd then filed a lawsuit — a “quiet title” action — to have the deeds validated and his inheritance confirmed. His brothers objected, saying that their father was incompetent at the time of signing and/or at the time the deed was delivered. The trial judge found that the three deeds signed in 2001 were effective, and confirmed the transfer of the farmland to three sons.

The south Dakota Supreme Court agreed with the trial judge and affirmed the verdict. One key element of that ruling: the appellate judges agreed that the deeds were delivered when Cecil Stockwell handed them to his son Lloyd — or at least that Lloyd’s deed was. That meant that the question of Cecil’s capacity had to be tested as of 2001, when the deeds were signed and handed to Lloyd, rather than 2004, when they were recorded. Interestingly, an argument could be made that the deeds to the other two sons had to be tested against Cecil’s capacity in 2004, even though Lloyd’s deed only raised questions about Cecil’s capacity in 2001. Stockwell v. Stockwell, October 13, 2010.

Could a lawyer have helped Cecil Stockwell accomplish what he wanted? Absolutely, and at a much smaller cost than his sons ended up paying to their lawyers to sort out the meaning and effect of the vest pocket deeds. With good legal advice, Cecil might have gone ahead and recorded the “life estate” deeds he signed in 2001 — though he would then have given up the ability to make further changes. A lawyer might have recommended that he transfer all of his property into a revocable living trust, which would have allowed him to retain the ability to change who would receive which parcel at his death, and even to make clear who would farm each parcel until that time. Even a will naming beneficiaries would have been less expensive than the vest pocket deeds — as it turned out, his sons filed a probate proceeding anyway, and avoidance of probate might well have been Cecil’s primary motivation.

Because Cecil Stockwell did not live in Arizona (or Arkansas, Colorado, Indiana, Kansas, Missouri, Montana, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma or Wisconsin) he did not have one useful option available to him. An attorney in those states could have told him about the concept of a “beneficiary” deed — sometimes called a “transfer on death” or “TOD” deed — which might have been exactly what he needed. Such a deed is revocable, but makes the transfer automatic upon the owner’s death. If that had been available to him, it might have let him record his deeds back in 1992 and again in 2001 without blocking him from making later changes as his feelings toward his sons changed.

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