Caretaker Breached Alleged Oral Contract With Decedent, So No Payout

July 8, 2013 | Erika Eckley

Numerous cases have occurred over the years involving the provision of care for an individual in return for some sort of inheritance.  In the farm context, such an arrangement often involves an on-farm heir or a farm tenant.  In all cases, however, it is best to get any understandings down in writing so that expectations are clear and the possibility of a lawsuit can be minimized.  Unfortunately, that didn’t happen in this case.

The plaintiff was the farm tenant of an elderly couple.    He had initially started working for the wife  in 1976 when he was 16 years old. Their relationship continued when the plaintiff entered into an oral lease with the husband. This lease continued after the husband died and lasted until the wife’s later death.  After the husband died, the plaintiff helped the widow with home maintenance and other needs.  She helped back bank loans for the plaintiff and considered him like a son. In 2002, the widow suffered a debilitating stroke and ended up in a nursing home to recuperate.  However, in 2003, the decedent contacted the plaintiff to come get her from the nursing home.  From February 2003 until September 2009, with brief respites when she needed medical care, she would take care of the plaintiff. Due to the stroke, the wife had no control of her bodily functions and could not use her left side. The plaintiff would get her dressed in the morning, wash her clothes, clean her off in the shower, set out a snack for her, ensure frozen meals were available, and check on her. Sometimes he would take her to lunch. Also, over this same timeframe, an ambulance was called to the home more than 30 times.

In 2004, the widow changed her will to give the plaintiff 80 acres of land in exchange for his help in keeping her out of a nursing home. At one point there was a disagreement regarding a check for plaintiff’s equipment repairs. The plaintiff prepared the check and the widow signed it, but several months later the widow called her attorney to change the power of attorney to someone else because she alleged the plaintiff forged her signature. The plaintiff argued the widow merely forgot she signed the check, but made arrangements to repay the amount to settle the conflict.

The widow changed her will two more times. The first time she gave the 80 acres to the tenant’s son because she was worried that the tenant would lose the farm to the bank. Then, she decided to give the tenant $40,000 and put the land in trust with an option for the tenant to lease as long as he wanted.  She did this because she was afraid that the son would pledge the land as collateral for his father and the land would be lost that way.

Allegations were made that the widow changed her will again in 2006 to write the tenant out of her will despite his continued care for her. After several more incidents in which the widow was injured, the plaintiff determined it would not be possible for the widow to stay in her home because she needed medical care that could not be provided. He took her to the nursing home where she remained until her death two years later.

After the widow died, the plaintiff discovered he would not be given the 80 acres. He brought a claim against the estate claiming that he and the widow had entered into an oral contract in 2004. He claimed that the agreement was that if the he cared for the decedent so she could remain at home, then he would receive the farmland at her death as compensation.  However, the court held the plaintiff breached the agreement because the decedent spent that last two years of her 104-year life in a nursing home.  Thus, the court reasoned, the plaintiff did not fulfill the terms of the contract and was not entitled to any recovery. The plaintiff appealed.

The appellate court determined that the plaintiff failed to prove an oral contract existed. Despite the decedent’s change to her will in 2004 appearing to corroborate the agreement, the decedent changed her will several times after that period which reflected as strongly that an agreement did not exist. Additionally, neither the decedent’s long-time attorney nor the plaintiff’s wife knew of any agreement. The court concluded that the plaintiff did not prove the existence of any contract.

Despite the lack of proof, the court continued to examine whether the plaintiff was entitled to specific performance and whether there was an excuse for the plaintiff’s breach.  The estate argued that even if a contract existed, it should not be upheld on public policy grounds because the minimal care that the plaintiff provided bordered on dependent abuse.  The court declined to make a determination on whether the care violated public policy. Instead, the court determined that the plaintiff breached his obligation without justification.

The court also rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the widow had repudiated the contract first by changing her will in 2006 and lying to him about it. The court pointed out that a necessary principle of repudiation is that a statement sufficiently alerting the other contracting party that a breach will occur must be made. Because the widow never told the plaintiff of the change, there was no repudiation. In addition, her statement was not made final in the will until her death, so no repudiation could be made by the terms of the will until two years after the plaintiff breached the contract (apparently by putting her in the nursing home). The court also held that the contract was not made impossible to perform when the widow suffered severe burns and required more medical care than the plaintiff could provide. The possibility of a disabled, elderly woman suffering an injury was reasonable to anticipate at the time the contract was entered into and did not change the basic assumptions of the original agreement.

The court also rejected the plaintiff’s argument that he should receive some compensation for his services. The court pointed out that the plaintiff provided care for more than a year without any expectation of compensation. The plaintiff also failed to provide any proof of the reasonable value of his services. The court concluded that the $40,000 left to plaintiff in the will more than compensated him for his service.

So, what’s the take-home from this case?  No one really won.  The widow was stubborn and failed to adequately provide for her care. She insisted on living at home despite the lack of adequate care for her condition. Instead, she received minimal care from her long-term tenant who did not have the training or the capacity to provide the care she needed. The tenant, believing he would receive land in return for his help, allowed the widow to remain in a dangerous condition longer than she should have. Certainly, the case makes clear why plans should be made to provide for long-term care in the event that it might be needed in the future.  Biedenfeld v. Estate of French, No. No. 3-232 / 12-1577, 2013 Iowa App. LEXIS 677 (Iowa Ct. App. June 26, 2013).