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Crawford v. Krebs





APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Rock Island County; the Hon. FREDERICK P. PATTON, Judge, presiding.


This is an appeal from a judgment of the Circuit Court of Rock Island County finding that defendant Florence R. Krebs stood in a fiduciary relationship to the decedent Charles R. Hofer, in consequence of which the trial court directed that a conveyance of real property to the Hofer estate be made by defendant Florence Krebs and her daughter. The court also directed repayment or transfer to the Hofer estate various moneys and investments totaling over $50,000 which were transferred to the defendants by decedent Hofer. In the judgment entered by the trial court, defendants were specifically ordered to reconvey the real estate and to account for the money and investments of the decedent Charles R. Hofer.

Defendants argue on appeal that the proof was not sufficient to show the fiduciary relationship and the consequent exercise of undue influence. Defendants also contend that the original plaintiff, Albert Crawford, had no authority to bring the action initially.

Decedent Charles R. Hofer was 76 years of age and a resident of Andalusia, Illinois, when, in May of 1974, he hired Florence Krebs to be his housekeeper. Mrs. Krebs, 51 years of age (who was previously unknown to Hofer), entered into an oral agreement with Hofer to move in with him and take care of him for $200 monthly plus room and board. Mrs. Krebs' daughter Crystal was also to live there.

Decedent Hofer broke his hip in a fall in late October 1974, and was in the hospital for a few weeks. In late November, after he had returned to his home, he deeded his home to the defendants Florence R. Krebs and her daughter Crystal Krebs, reserving only a life estate in himself. Thereafter, at different times, he endorsed $30,000 in funds from certificates of deposit over to the defendants, and transferred an investment certificate valued at $11,500 to them. He also gave Mrs. Krebs control of $10,600 from his savings, for use in paying daily living expenses. Apparently, from the record, the sums referred to together with the real estate conveyed, constituted virtually all that the decedent Charles R. Hofer owned.

Approximately on the first day of January, 1975, decedent Hofer was again admitted to the hospital for a few weeks. Thereafter, a month later, in February 1975, Albert Crawford was named conservator to collect for the estate of Charles Hofer, an incompetent. Albert Crawford immediately filed the instant action, seeking to recover, for the estate of Charles R. Hofer, the property and moneys given by Hofer to the defendants.

Shortly thereafter in late February or early March, 1975, Mrs. Krebs took Hofer to a house she had recently purchased in Viola, about 20 miles south of Andalusia, and she rented the Hofer home to another tenant. In April, however, Hofer was again taken to the hospital after a series of slight strokes, and from there he was taken to a convalescent home where he died, during the first week of June of 1975.

Hofer's wife had died in May 1973. Hofer's heirs consisted of one sister and a number of nieces and nephews. Most of these relatives lived in the Rock Island area and testified at the hearing on the petition in this case. The testimony generally indicated that Hofer got along well with his relatives and that most of the relatives visited him on a fairly regular basis. Hofer did not discuss his property or his financial affairs with them. The relatives testified that the defendant Mrs. Krebs kept a very neat and clean house during her year with Hofer and that she did not interfere with their visits to the old man, although she would often be in the room during the visits. A friend of the decedent Hofer, Lossee Morford, and his son Steve, however, testified to a couple of instances in which Mrs. Krebs would not permit them to see Hofer. Witnesses for defendants, as well as other witnesses, including Dr. Meier, the family physician, stated that Charles Hofer was in good physical condition, other than his difficulty in walking, and that he was generally of sound and rational mind. However, after his October 1974 accident, the witnesses also testified, Hofer often seemed confused and absent-minded, and at times appeared to be depressed. Some witnesses stated that it became very difficult to talk with him. Dr. Meier testified that Hofer exhibited symptoms of becoming senile.

The only direct testimony concerning the transfer of the real estate and moneys to defendant Mrs. Krebs and her daughter, came from Mrs. Krebs herself, and from a few statements related by other witnesses. Mrs. Krebs said that Hofer first mentioned in June or July 1974 that he would like to give her all his property if she would stay with him and take care of him until he died. She stated that, shortly after his return from the hospital in November 1974, Hofer told defendant Mrs. Krebs that he wanted to convey his home to her and put her in his will. Mrs. Krebs also stated that Hofer did not want to discuss the matter with his usual attorney and instead picked the name of Peter Soble out of the listing of attorneys in the phone directory. Attorney Soble prepared a will and the deed to the real estate from Hofer to the defendant. According to the attorney's secretary they spent between 30 to 45 minutes with decedent Hofer. Soble answered the questions put to him by Hofer and explained the significance of the documents to Hofer and also made an effort to ascertain that the documents reflected Hofer's intent and wishes.

The only other testimony corroborating the voluntary nature of the transfers came from Dr. Meier, who said that Hofer told him during a visit in February, 1975, that he wanted to give Mrs. Krebs everything he had, and "nothing to the damned relatives." Dr. Meier testified that Hofer seemed alert and lucid when he made the statement, although the doctor thought it was a bit unusual, since Hofer had never seemed to dislike, in any way, any of his relatives.

Evidence in strong support of plaintiff's position was given in the testimony of a public health service nurse who testified that during a visit by her in February, 1975, to the home, Mrs. Krebs told her that she had "fooled" the family by having an attorney over and having Hofer sign over his property. There was also testimony by Ed Griffin, a nephew of Hofer, and a one-eighth beneficiary under a joint will executed in 1968 by Hofer and his wife, who testified that when he, Griffin, and Albert Crawford visited Hofer in the hospital in April 1975, the old man told them that Mrs. Krebs had threatened to hit him if he didn't sign some papers and threatened to leave him if he sided with the Crawfords against her.

There was also evidence from Mrs. Krebs that during the first several months of her work for Hofer, she helped redecorate and repaint the house; helped make new curtains; did the washing, ironing and cooking; helped Hofer into and out of the bathtub every day and laid out his clothes. She also took him out walking or driving every day and occasionally took him to a restaurant or drivein theater. After the accident in October 1974, in addition to the duties otherwise performed by her, Mrs. Krebs stated she had considerable extra work because Hofer began to lose control of his bowels, developed an impacted bowel, and was mostly confined to bed.

It appears from the record that Mrs. Krebs was not paid for her services, despite the $200 a month agreement, and Mrs. Krebs testified that she also incurred a great deal of out-of-pocket expense in running the Hofer household.

The initial issue raised by defendant is the claim that Albert Crawford, the original plaintiff, did not show his standing to maintain the instant action. The complaint alleged at the outset of each of the two counts filed "that the plaintiff is the duly-appointed conservator to collect of the Estate of Charles R. Hofer, Incompetent, and a copy of Letters of said conservatorship is attached hereto and made a part ...

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