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Young v. Lagasse

Supreme Court of Maine

June 30, 2016


          Submitted On Briefs: May 26, 2016

         On the briefs:

          Ferdinand A. Slater, Esq., for appellant

          Lois Young Joseph Lagasse, appellee pro se


          HUMPHREY, J.

         [¶1] Lois Young appeals from a judgment of the Superior Court (Hancock County, R. Murray, J.) finding that she had not met her burden of establishing that the transfer of her home to her former foster child, Joseph Lagasse, and his wife was a result of undue influence and was therefore voidable. Specifically, Young contends that the court erred by not applying a statutory presumption that a transfer of assets by an elderly, dependent person is a result of undue influence unless that person was represented by "independent counsel" at the time of the transfer. Because the court did not err by declining to apply the statutory presumption, and because the record supports a finding that the transfer was not the result of undue influence, we affirm.

          I. BACKGROUND

         [¶2] On July 14, 2014, Young filed a complaint in the Superior Court claiming that her prior transfer of her home to Joseph and Andrea Lagasse created a presumption of undue influence under the Improvident Transfers of Title Act, 33 M.R.S. §§ 1021-1025 (2015), and should therefore be voided.[1] A bench trial was held on July 22, 2015.

         [¶3] The court heard testimony from Young, from her attorney for the transfer and his paralegal, and from several of Young's family members and friends. After hearing the evidence, the court stated,

The issue before the [c]ourt . . . as raised in the complaint . . . is whether the [property transfer] was improvident transfer of title. That is a specific statute in law which dictates what should occur, and what might be a challenge to such a transfer . . . . [When] an elderly person [transfers property] to one [with whom the elderly person is] in a confidential or fiduciary relationship [it] is presumed to be [a transfer] that is . . . the result of undue influence unless the elderly dependent person was represented in the transfer or execution by independent counsel.

         The court further stated that "the critical aspect of this case [is] whether or not at the time of the transfer, Ms. Young . . . had the benefit of independent counsel to review with her what was happening at the time." The court found that Young was represented by independent counsel at the time of the transfer. The court also found that Young's attorney was not precluded from representing her in the real estate transaction even though he had previously represented Lagasse in a criminal matter. The court stated that it weighed Young's own testimony in light of events that occurred since the transfer that have affected her memory. Finally, because it found that Young had independent counsel, the court stated, "I do not find that the aspects of an improvident transfer have been proven by the plaintiff, and, accordingly, that transfer which occurred prior to Ms. Young's current incapacities will not be voided."

         [¶4] Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the court's judgment, the record supports the following facts. See Hero v. Macomber, 2016 ME 4, ¶ 2, 130 A.3d 398. In June 2013, Lois Young, then eighty-two years old, met at least twice with attorney Steven Juskewitch, who had known Young for fifteen or twenty years and also knew her former foster child, Lagasse, because he was a former client.[2] Lagasse and his wife Andrea accompanied Young to Juskewitch's office for the second meeting on June 21, 2013, [3] but Juskewitch and his paralegal met with Young alone for over an hour and finalized a deed transferring her home to the Lagasses[4] as a gift.[5] Young intended to ensure a secure future for the Lagasses' son, whom she loved; at the time of the transfer, the Lagasses lived in a separate structure on Young's property. Juskewitch and Young discussed alternative options for executing her wishes and the consequences of a property transfer. Juskewitch described Young as being "bright-eyed and bushy tailed" and "very aware of her circumstances" during his interactions with her, and he testified that she appeared to understand what she was doing.

         [¶5] After Young and Juskewitch met on June 21, the Lagasses joined them to sign the transfer tax declaration. The mortgage holder was not notified of the transfer, [6] and Young continued to pay the mortgage and the property taxes on the home. Sometime after the transfer, Young suffered a fall and/or a stroke and spent time in the hospital.[7] After this incident, she was less independent. Young could not remember making the transfer, but she stated that it was her desire to leave property for the Lagasses' son and admitted that she had problems with her memory since the post-transfer medical incident.

         [¶6] The court entered judgment in favor of the Lagasses with respect to Young's improvident transfer claim and request for ...

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