Posts Tagged ‘South Dakota’

“Vest Pocket” Deed Is Valid to Transfer Family Farmland

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.

Conservator May Be Able To Act As Successor Trustee

Let’s say you have created a revocable living trust, and you have named yourself as trustee. You also name your two children as successor trustees, to act together upon your death or incapacity. Two years later you become incapacitated; because of a dispute between your two children about who should handle assets outside the trust, the probate court names a local bank as your conservator. Now who handles your trust — the bank, or your children?

Before we answer that question, let us complicate it. You are also the beneficiary of a trust set up by your late husband — and you are trustee of that trust, as well. About half of the assets the two of you owned are included in each of the two trusts. Your husband’s trust names you as trustee (now that he is deceased) and names the two children as successor trustees if anything should happen to you. Does your conservator have any authority over that trust?

Those were precisely the questions faced by a probate judge in South Dakota when Evelyn Didier became incapacitated. The bank appointed as her conservator asked the court to clarify that it had control over both trusts as well as Ms. Didier’s non-trust assets. The judge agreed, and Ms. Didier’s daughter Barbara Didier-Stager appealed.

Court appointment of a conservator does not amount to appointment of a successor trustee, argued Ms. Didier’s daughter. In fact, appointment of a conservator proves the incapacity that triggers a change in trustees — resulting in the son and daughter taking over as successor trustee of their mother’s trust. As to their father’s trust, the successor trustee provisions are triggered by the conservatorship in the same way — though our simplified version of the facts described above fails to clarify that the successor trustees of that trust were actually Ms. Didier-Stager and another local bank — different from the bank acting as Ms. Didier’s conservator.

South Dakota, like Arizona, has adopted the Uniform Probate Code — though South Dakota’s version has been updated more recently and is more current. The Code includes provisions about guardianship and conservatorship (though now those sections have been set aside as a separate uniform law, the Uniform Guardianship and Protective Proceedings Act). Those uniform laws permit the judge in a conservatorship proceeding to enter orders related to the protected person’s estate plan.

So, reasoned the South Dakota court, the probate court could permit Ms. Didier’s conservator to do anything that Ms. Didier herself could have done before becoming incapacitated. Her own trust was revocable and amendable — if she had wanted to do so, she could have changed the successor trustee at any time. She could have named the bank that was ultimately appointed as her conservator. Consequently, the court could allow her conservator to assume the powers of successor trustee over that trust.

The late Mr. Didiers trust was a different matter, however. Ms. Didier herself did not have the power to change the trustee, and so her conservator could not exercise that power on her behalf. That trust would have to be dealt with separately, and the Supreme Court ordered the case remanded to the probate judge to determine what to do about Mr. Didier’s trust. Conservatorship of Didier, June 30, 2010.

Does this mean that Mr. Didier’s successor trustees automatically take over, instead of Mrs. Didier’s conservator? Probably not. Other provisions of the Probate Code give the probate judge authority over trust administration, and if it appears that there is some reason not to allow the named successors to become trustee there will presumably be an order to that effect. But it does change the discussion from a choice between blindly following the document or giving Mrs. Didier’s conservator power to do anything she could do. Instead, the probate court will have to determine which approach is most consistent with the trust, with proper administration, and with the best interests of the trust’s beneficiaries.

The Uniform law actually goes quite a bit further today than the 1974 version originally adopted in Arizona (though Arizona has updated portions of the law several times). Reviewing the statute in the context of the Didier case highlights some of the changes. Among the powers given to conservators by the “new” Code (as adopted in South Dakota, for instance) is the power to “make, amend, or revoke the protected person’s will.” (See Section 411(a)(7) of the Uniform Guardianship and Protective Proceedings Act.) Court approval is required, but the very notion of a conservator changing the protected person’s estate plan might strike some as dangerous.

©2017 Fleming & Curti, PLC