APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Champaign County; the Hon.
GROVER W. WATSON, Judge, presiding.
MR. JUSTICE DAILY DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:
Rehearing denied November 17, 1952.
This is a direct appeal from a decree of the circuit court of Champaign County in a suit wherein the plaintiffs sought to have seven parcels of real estate partitioned and to have a deed conveying two of said parcels to John L. Berrigan and his wife, Edith Phelan Berrigan, two of the defendants, declared null and void. John L. Berrigan counterclaimed asking for specific performance of an oral contract, which relief, if granted, would make him the sole owner of all seven tracts of land. The case was heard by a master who recommended that a decree be entered partitioning five of the seven parcels, decreeing John L. Berrigan and Edith Phelan Berrigan to be the sole owners in fee of the other two parcels by virtue of the deed which the plaintiffs sought to have declared null and void, and dismissing John Berrigan's counterclaim. The report of the master was approved and the court entered a decree as recommended.
The plaintiffs, Michael A. Berigan, Monica Berigan Felter, Gertrude Berigan Wilson, deceased, (here represented by Alonzo E. Wilson, the administrator of her estate,) Joseph B. Berigan, Anna Arenz and Agnes Berigan, and the defendants John L. Berrigan, Teresa Berigan and Margaret B. Sullivan are all brothers and sisters and the sole heirs-at-law of their uncle, Patrick Berigan, the former owner of all of the real estate embraced in this litigation. Teresa Berigan and Margaret B. Sullivan join here with the original plaintiffs as appellants and ask us to reverse that portion of the decree which declared the disputed deed to be valid and decreed John L. Berrigan and his wife, Edith Phelan Berrigan, the appellees, to be the sole owners in fee of two of the seven parcels of real estate.
Patrick Berigan was past ninety years of age when he died intestate on July 22, 1949. He had been a bachelor all of his life. He was a successful businessman and had accumulated considerable real estate. Included among his holdings were a 160-acre farm in Champaign County and a house and lot in Villa Grove, Illinois. These two parcels of real estate are described in a deed dated February 19, 1948, which recites that Patrick Berigan conveyed and quitclaimed said property to John L. Berrigan and Edith Phelan Berrigan. The sole issue involved in this appeal is the validity of this instrument. In order to fully understand that issue and the contentions of the parties, however, it is necessary that we discuss in some detail certain facts and circumstances surrounding this controversy and the evidence bearing on the execution of the deed.
John L. Berrigan was apparently the relative with whom Patrick Berigan had the closest relation the last two or three years of his life. During the year or two prior to February 19, 1948, John lived in Tolono and Patrick lived in the neighboring towns of Villa Grove or Tuscola. It was John's practice to assist his Uncle Patrick as often as possible in such ways as driving him about to take care of his business, opening his mail and doing other odd jobs to which his uncle could not attend because of his advanced age and failing health. Patrick spent considerable time living in nursing homes and hospitals during this period and John was his most frequent companion. On February 18 or 19, 1948, John gave up his job in Champaign, and he and Patrick moved to Patrick's home in Villa Grove. At that time John's wife, Edith, was living and teaching school in Wisconsin, but at a later date she too moved into this house and she and John lived with and cared for Patrick until his death.
The evidence makes it quite certain that Patrick Berigan suffered from Parkinson's disease and was in very poor health from at least 1946 until his death, yet despite this poor health, it seems that he was remarkably active for a man of his age and was a dominant person who made up his own mind and was not easily influenced. The evidence is somewhat conflicting as to the soundness of Patrick's mind in late 1947 and the early part of the year 1948. However, on October 27, 1948, the county court of Douglas County found Patrick to be an incompetent person and incapable of managing his property, and, accordingly, a conservator was appointed for him on that date.
The disputed deed, defendants' exhibit 1, appears to bear the date of February 19, 1948, the day or day after John and Patrick moved into the Villa Grove house. It describes the grantees, John and Edith Berrigan, to be of the village of Tolono and describes the Villa Grove house as being the house where the grantor and grantees then lived. The deed is not acknowledged. The grantor's signature is practically indecipherable. John L. Berrigan caused this deed to be recorded in Douglas County on August 15, 1949, and in Champaign County on August 18, 1949, several weeks after Patrick Berigan's death. John Teter testified that he happened to go to the Villa Grove house on February 19, 1948, and while on the porch saw Patrick signing a piece of paper that looked like the deed in question. The same witness further testified that when Patrick came to the door he said: "I just got through giving John a deed for some property, by Judas." Harold C. Jones, a lawyer acquainted with both John and Patrick, testified that John stated to him that after executing the deed Patrick said: "John, this is yours, if they treat you right you divide this between them, if you want to, if they don't you do what you want with it." John related this to Jones in a conversation had with the witness after Patrick's death on the occasion of John's showing defendants' exhibit 1 to the witness. Harold C. Jones and Melvin Matteson both substantiated a further complicating fact when they testified that there was another deed quite similar to defendants' exhibit 1. This other deed has been lost. Jones testified that he saw this lost deed about a week prior to Patrick's death when it was brought to his office by Matteson, Patrick's conservator, and that he believed that the lost deed and defendants' exhibit 1 were practically alike except that Patrick's signature was far more legible on the lost deed. In an offer of proof, which was refused by the master, the plaintiffs offered to prove by Jones that he would have testified that he told Matteson that he did not believe the lost deed was worth anything because it was not acknowledged and because the signature did not look like the signature of Patrick which he had seen on checks. This witness further testified that when John showed him defendants' exhibit 1, after Patrick's death, John explained that the reason he had had two deeds was because when Patrick signed the first deed, defendants' exhibit 1, the signature was so poor that John thought the deed might not be valid, so he had Patrick sign the lost deed while he guided his hand in order to make it more legible. The witness further stated that John told him at the same time that both of said deeds were signed on the same date and that he had them both ever since. Matteson testified that John Berrigan brought the lost deed to him in July, prior to Patrick's death, and that he took it to show to Jones and then returned it to John prior to Patrick's death.
Several witnesses testified that Patrick, subsequent to February 19, 1948, had made statements to them to the effect that he had taken care of John, or that John had nothing to worry about, or that John was to have the property after his death, or that he had left John the property after his death. James A. Bates testified that in April, 1949, he went to the Villa Grove house where both Pat and John lived and that while John was showing him around the house John opened a dresser drawer in an upstairs room and showed him the deed marked as defendants' exhibit 1. After showing it to him, the witness stated that John put it back in the dresser drawer. John Berrigan himself testified that the deed was kept in a lockbox belonging to him and his wife in a dresser drawer from the date of Patrick's death until the day it was recorded.
The facts of this case are even further complicated by the testimony of Donald Doud, an expert witness employed by the appellants, and the very detailed and elaborate exhibits prepared by him, all of which were transmitted to us with the record. The reason for this testimony springs from the fact that the "8" appearing in the date February 19, 1948, on the deed, seems to have been in part written over some other mark or figure, and from the very illegible character of Patrick Berigan's signature as it appears on the deed. The appellants do not contend that Patrick's signature does not appear on the deed, but rather contend that the deed was not signed until sometime in 1949 after he had been adjudged incompetent on October 27, 1948. Donald Doud testified that he had examined Patrick Berigan's signature as he wrote it on other instruments in the early part of 1948 and also signatures as they were written in 1949 after Patrick Berigan's health had further declined. Exhibits were introduced showing the signature of Patrick as he wrote it during these different periods. This expert witness testified that all of these exhibits had been carefully examined under various types of magnifying instruments and under different lights, and that enlarged photographs and reproductions had been made of these signatures including the one appearing on the disputed deed. The same type of analysis was made of the deed itself. In his testimony Doud gave the opinion that certain parts of the deed were typed at different times than were other parts of the deed because certain words were not in alignment, indicating that the instrument had been taken from the machine and reinserted. He stated that it was his opinion that the loop and beginning of the staff of a figure "9" was written on the deed and then a figure "8" superimposed upon it where the "8" appears in the date February 19, 1948. Doud testified that it was his opinion that the deed was prepared in 1949 and that Patrick Berigan signed the deed in 1949 rather than on February 19, 1948. The master refused to permit the expert to testify as to the specific basis for this opinion, and the court sustained this ruling on hearing of objections to the master's report. However, it is obvious from Doud's testimony taken as a whole, that his opinion that the deed was not signed until sometime in 1949 is based upon his conclusion that the signature on the deed more closely corresponds with signatures written by Patrick Berigan in 1949 than with those written by him in January, February and March of 1948 plus his conclusion that the start of a figure "9" appears under the figure "8" in 1948 on the deed. The appellants argue that because of this possible presence of part of a figure "9" covered by an "8," it can be reasonably inferred that someone dating an instrument in 1949 would naturally be inclined to write the current year 1949 before he consciously realized that it was his purpose and intent to affix a date in the instrument for the previous year 1948, and that he would thus start to write "9" before catching his error and then correct his error by superimposing an "8" on the partially written "9."
The evidence further reveals that from February 19, 1948, the date the deed bears, until his death, Patrick Berigan or his conservator exercised complete dominion and control over the property conveyed by the deed. They sold the grain off the farm, paid the taxes, contracted to have work done on the house in Villa Grove and paid for it. More than a year after February 19, 1948, John Berrigan applied to Patrick's conservator for $56 that he had expended on some repairs on the house which had been conveyed, and was reimbursed in this amount by the conservator.
On the basis of the evidence outlined above, the appellants ask us to hold the deed to be invalid and to overturn the findings of the master, approved by the chancellor, as being against the manifest weight of the evidence. This appeal clearly turns on the validity or invalidity of the disputed deed. The appellants contend that the evidence conclusively establishes that the deed is invalid and that it should be held to be inoperative as a conveyance on one of the following grounds: (1) That a fiduciary relationship existed between Patrick Berigan and John and Edith Berrigan, and that said deed was procured in violation of the principles attending such a relationship; (2) that said deed was signed or delivered, if at all, subsequent to October 27, 1948, at a time when Patrick Berigan was incompetent to execute an effective conveyance; (3) that the deed could not operate as a conveyance because it was never delivered; and (4) that the deed is actually testamentary in character and therefore void because it does not comply with the requisites of the Statute of Wills.
The existence of a fiduciary relationship between a grantor and grantee depends upon all the facts and circumstances of each particular case, and courts of equity have consistently refused to establish any definite bounds to the facts and circumstances out of which the relationship may spring in a given case. (Staufenbiel v. Staufenbiel, 388 Ill. 511.) The principles to be applied in reaching such a determination are elementary and do not require discussion. The master made a specific finding that the evidence did not show a fiduciary relation to have existed between the grantor and grantees here. It is probable that such a finding was greatly influenced by the testimony of many witnesses that Patrick Berigan was a stubborn man who made up his own mind and was not easily persuaded to change it. We are prompted to state that the facts of this case do present a close question as to the existence or nonexistence of the relationship. It must be remembered, however, that the mere existence of a fiduciary relationship does not of itself invalidate a transaction between the parties involved. The transaction will be sustained despite the existence of the relationship in a case where the grantor had competent and independent advice or where the grantee did not procure the deed by improper methods violative of the duties imposed upon him by the relationship, such as by means attended with circumstances of oppression or overreaching. (Stasch v. Romza, 387 Ill. 67.) Although it is not shown here that Patrick Berigan had independent advice relative to the transaction in dispute, it is very clear that the record does not disclose any evidence showing that John or Edith Berrigan improperly influenced Patrick into wanting to give them the property or employed improper means to procure the deed. There is no testimony indicating undue influence, oppression or overreaching. Rather, the record seems to bear out the position that Patrick was the moving and dominant force in the decision that John and Edith should have the property; and such readily appears to have been his desire and intent arrived at, from all that appears in the record, out of natural and valuable considerations of affection and indebtedness for many past favors and kind treatment. Thus, even though we might feel somewhat inclined to find that a fiduciary relationship did exist between the grantor and grantees here, the result would be the same because we would in such case be compelled to hold that the grantees did not violate the obligations imposed by such a relationship and that the relationship was not itself the procuring cause of the conveyance. Accordingly, the finding of the master in this regard will be sustained and the deed held not to fail under any theory embraced within the law of fiduciary relations.
The other three grounds or theories under which the appellants contend the deed must fail, namely, that there was no delivery, that the signing and delivery came after the grantor was adjudged to be incompetent, and that the deed is void as being testamentary in character, present the most difficulty and are all interrelated in the sense that the resolution of one question likely resolves the others. We are here, however, concerned not only with whether there was a delivery of the deed but also we are very necessarily concerned ...