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Stavins v. Stavins

OPINION FILED MARCH 29, 1979.

DAN STAVINS, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,

v.

EUNICE STAVINS ET AL., DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS.



APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Cook County; the Hon. ARTHUR L. DUNNE, Judge, presiding.

MR. PRESIDING JUSTICE JIGANTI DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:

The defendant Eunice Stavins appeals from a judgment of the circuit court of Cook County declaring void a conveyance to her of a half interest in the marital home from her ex-husband, Dan Stavins, the plaintiff. On appeal, the defendant argues the conveyance was a valid gift and seeks reversal of the trial court. The plaintiff contends the gift was void because it was induced by moral duress.

The parties were married in 1953. They have four children, three of whom were minors living with the defendant at the time of this action. They were divorced in December 1973. The settlement agreement provided each party would receive a half interest in the marital home. Custody of the children was given to the defendant. The defendant continued to reside in the marital home with the minor children after the divorce. The plaintiff was required to pay child support, a lump sum in lieu of alimony, and the children's educational and medical expenses. At the time of the disputed transaction, the plaintiff lived in a one-bedroom apartment with his second wife.

On March 23, 1977, the defendant attempted suicide by taking an overdose of pills. On March 24, 1977, the plaintiff was informed that the defendant had attempted to take her own life because she had misappropriated more than $15,000 from her employer. The plaintiff testified that he had a conversation with the defendant on the day after the suicide attempt at their marital home. The parties' three minor children and a woman named Sheila Levin were also present. The defendant told the plaintiff that she could no longer provide for the children and that the plaintiff should take the children. She said she would move out of the house, leaving it to him. She told the plaintiff that her only concern was to repay the money she had embezzled; that she wanted to save herself and the children from embarrassment. The plaintiff told the defendant that he could not make any decision without consulting his present wife; that he could not take the children into his one-bedroom apartment; and that he would not move back into the marital home against his present wife's wishes.

The plaintiff admitted in a deposition that on the day after the suicide attempt he told the defendant there was a possibility he could give her his half interest in the house. However, when he testified in court he denied making such an offer. The plaintiff was asked if the defendant demanded or requested his interest in the house. The plaintiff responded:

"She suggested that there's only one thing she's interested in, and that's the embezzlement money to Burt's, and that she wants — I think the inference was there — that she would want my share of the equity. Maybe she didn't come out directly and say that to me, but, I think, the inference was there."

When he signed a blank quitclaim deed he understood he was giving up his interest in the house.

The plaintiff also testified he had not discussed the possible conveyance of his half interest in the house with an attorney at the time he signed the blank documents. He said he never intended to make a gift of the house to the defendant. The plaintiff testified that the defendant brought a quitclaim deed to him at his office two or three days after the suicide attempt and that he signed the blank form. A week or more later a document was mailed to his office, addressed to the defendant. The plaintiff had his son give this envelope to the defendant. A day or two later, the defendant appeared at the plaintiff's office again and asked him to sign a blank assignment form. The document, which assigned the plaintiff's interest in the house to the defendant, was introduced into evidence. The plaintiff said his understanding was that the defendant's sole purpose for wanting the house was to repay the embezzled funds.

Sheila Levin's description of the conversation was essentially the same as the plaintiff's, except that she said the plaintiff told the defendant he could help by giving her his interest in the house. The plaintiff told the defendant it would be fine if she could repay him and, if not, that it did not matter. The witness was present when the quitclaim deed was signed, and the plaintiff said he was signing the paper to help the defendant with her financial problems.

Robert Stavins, a son of the parties, testified that during the conversation between the parties they stated:

"So, they were tossing around what to do, and they came upon financing the home, and my father had said, `I'll give you my half of the home, I just want the children to be happy,' and my mother had said, `Thank you, if I ever can repay you, I will,' and my father said, `I don't want anything, I want the children to be happy; you keep the house.'"

Robert also said he overheard a telephone conversation which the plaintiff had with his attorney, Miles Beerman, two or three days after the suicide attempt. The plaintiff told Robert that he was going to call Beerman to ask him for advice. Robert heard his father say, "I know, Miles, legally speaking I'm an idiot, but do it anyway. Keep it quiet."

The defendant testified the plaintiff offered to help by giving her his half interest in the house. She told the plaintiff she wanted to repay the embezzled funds to her employer. She denied threatening to attempt suicide again if the plaintiff refused to transfer the property. She denied demanding or requesting that he transfer the property. The quitclaim deed was filled in before she obtained the plaintiff's signature. The plaintiff signed the form and then suggested that she go to the Lincolnwood Bank where Marvin Schneider could advise her. The plaintiff called Schneider to inform him that the defendant was on her way. At the Lincolnwood Bank the defendant discovered that the quitclaim deed was useless because the house was in trust. She asked the Northwest National Bank to mail her an assignment of beneficial interest form. The form was mailed to the plaintiff's office and a week later she went to that office, filled out the form, and had the plaintiff sign the completed form.

The defendant also testified that the embezzled money went toward the living expenses of her family. Between January 1976 and March 1977, the defendant went to Las Vegas half a dozen times. Each trip lasted three to five days. She paid her own expenses for the trips and while there she gambled. Her gambling gains exceeded her losses for ...


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