Townsend v. Morton, — So.3d —-, 2010 WL 2218327 (Fla. 5th DCA Jun 04, 2010)

Deeds are common will-substitutes, so no surprise they come up with some frequency in inheritance disputes . . .  and this blog [click here, here, here]. This case is about when a court will let you unwind a deed that was "procured by fraud, deceit, trickery, or artifice." All common accusations in inheritance disputes.

The property at the center of this family drama was a 46.3 acre cattle farm mom had inherited from her father. In exchange for son paying over $137,000 of mom’s debts, she executed a deed conveying a remainder interest in the cattle farm to son, retaining a life estate for herself. Some time later son figures out that the guy who’s been living with mom is actually married to her. According to the 5th DCA, mom had repeatedly "lied to him about her marital status." Although unstated in the opinion, mom’s marital status is significant. Why? Because § 4(c) of Article X of Florida’s Constitution requires both spouses to sign any deed conveying an interest in homestead property. Oops! I’m guessing son – a licensed real estate broker for 16 years – spotted this homestead issue, so he got mom and her husband to both sign a new deed. So far so good. 

Here’s the problem: The third deed conveyed full title to son, no life estate for mom; he now owned the farm all by himself. Mom cried foul, saying she had no idea she’d just signed over the family farm.

As a lawyer for mom, if you heard this story you’d know there’s a lawsuit in here somewhere. The tough part is figuring out how to fit these facts into a cause of action your client can successfully pursue in court. Well, look no further. Think "Rescission". And here’s your road map courtesy of the 5th DCA:

Rescission is an equitable remedy adopted long ago by the courts, and the continued vitality of cases of ancient vintage that have applied this remedy is a testament to its age. See, e.g., Smith v. Richards, 38 U.S. (13 Pet.) 26, 36, 10 L.Ed. 42 (1839); Columbus Hotel Corp. v. Hotel Mgmt. Co., 116 Fla. 464, 156 So. 893, 897 (1934). Over the many years that the courts have utilized the equitable remedy of rescission, some principles have been firmly established regarding its applicability.

The courts have established that rescission is a proper remedy to relieve a party from obligations and provisions of an instrument procured by fraud, deceit, trickery, or artifice. Smith; Columbus Hotel. As the court explained in Columbus Hotel:

Equity will grant to a complaining party rescission of an agreement procured through fraud, deceit, artifice, or trickery practiced upon him by the opposite party, even after it had been partially executed, in cases where it is made to appear that the complaining party would not have entered into such agreement, nor changed his position thereby, if it had not been for the influence of such fraud, deceit, artifice, or trickery so practiced upon him.

156 So. at 897; see Smith, 38 U.S. (13 Pet.) at 36 (“In 1 Maddock’s Chancery, 208, it is thus stated. If, indeed, a man, upon a treaty for any contract, make a false representation, whether knowingly or not, by means of which he puts the party bargaining under a mistake upon the terms of bargain, it is a fraud, and relievable in equity.”); see also Webb v. Kirkland, 899 So.2d 344, 346-47 (Fla. 2d DCA 2005) (holding that rescission of a warranty deed procured by fraud is appropriate); Bass v. Farish, 616 So.2d 1146, 1147 (Fla. 4th DCA 1993). The courts also have established that in order to grant rescission of an instrument, the other party must be restored to the position it occupied prior to its execution. See Webb; Bass; Lang v. Horne, 156 Fla. 605, 23 So.2d 848, 853 (1945).

Townsend claims that the third deed was obtained by fraud and should be rescinded. The elements that must be established to prove a claim of fraud are: “(1) a false statement concerning a material fact; (2) the representor’s knowledge that the representation is false; (3) an intention that the representation induce another to act on it; and, (4) consequent injury by the party acting in reliance on the representation.” Johnson v. Davis, 480 So.2d 625, 627 (Fla.1985); see also Webb, 899 So.2d at 346; Taylor Woodrow Homes Fla., Inc. v. 4/46-A Corp., 850 So.2d 536, 542 (Fla. 5th DCA 2003); Lopez-Infante v. Union Cent. Life Ins. Co., 809 So.2d 13, 15 (Fla. 3d DCA 2002).