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Plaintiff rented out a condominium to his mother and the decedent, his mother’s husband. The couple paid the mortgage payment directly to the mortgage holder.  After plaintiff’s mother died, the decedent continued to live in the residence and pay the mortgage.  After the decedent passed away, the plaintiff filed a claim for unpaid back rent. The plaintiff claimed that he did not charge the couple full rental value during the decedent’s lifetime because of a promise that the outstanding balance would be paid back through a provision in the decedent’s will. In other words, he claimed that the decedent promised to leave the plaintiff something in his will. The Personal Representative filed a disallowance of the claim.   The plaintiff thereupon filed a complaint in the probate court on the theories of breach of contract, promissory estoppel, and quantum meruit (an equitable theory to receive remuneration on the basis of fairness).

The probate court dismissed the case on the basis that MCL 700.2514, which requires that contracts to make a will must be in writing,  barred the action.  The probate court raised this statute on its own.  The plaintiff claimed on appeal that it was error for the probate court to raise this statute on its own.  The plaintiff claimed that his case was an ordinary breach of contract action.  The Court of Appeals disagreed.  The Court of Appeals held that a party’s choice of labels for a cause of action is not dispositive.  A party cannot avoid the dismissal of a cause of action through “artful pleading.”  The Court of Appeals further held that MCL 700.2514 directly applied to this situation.  This statute provides that a contract to make a will, or to die without a will, must be in writing.  The Court of Appeals held that because the terms of the alleged contract in this case were to arise after death, it was clearly an agreement to make a will.  Since it was not in writing, it was unenforceable.  The trial court correctly dismissed the case.

What this means for claimants:  If you expend monies or provide other services on behalf of someone in exchange for their promise that you will be reimbursed via their Will or Trust, be sure to get that promise in writing.

You can read the entire opinion here.

Authored by Barbara A. Assendelft