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Fox v. Lawson





APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Crawford County; the Hon. HARRY ZIEGLER, Judge, presiding.


Rehearing denied September 27, 1979.

Plaintiff, Eugene W. Fox, brought suit against defendant, Helen Curtis, in the circuit court of Crawford County seeking specific performance of an alleged oral contract to convey real estate to plaintiff. Defendant counterclaimed against plaintiff and filed a third-party action against other interested parties, who are not involved in this appeal, to quiet title and to eject plaintiff from the property. Following a bench trial, judgment was entered in favor of defendant and plaintiff appealed.

In 1968, Helen Curtis, a widow, signed a contract for deed to purchase a 340-acre farm, the subject of this litigation, from a Weger Allison. By May 1975, when Mrs. Curtis retired to the farm, she had paid approximately one-half of the purchase price on the contract. Realizing that she was unable to care for the farm herself, she contacted a farmer, John Vineyard, about entering into a contract whereby he would pay the balance of the contract for deed, operate and care for the farm, provide her with some income and benefits, and then eventually own the farm. A tentative draft of the contract was prepared, but no definite agreement was ever reached. Defendant discussed this matter by telephone on a number of occasions with her sister, Vera Fox, and her sister's husband, the plaintiff, who lived in California. Plaintiff claimed that after the negotiations with Mr. Vineyard were terminated defendant offered to make a similar arrangement with plaintiff because she was afraid of being unable to make the contract payments. He testified that he and defendant subsequently made an oral agreement on the telephone between July 5 and August 31, 1975, whereby he, and apparently his wife and family, would acquire a one-half interest in the farm and receive the remaining half interest upon her death in exchange for their paying the balance of the contract for deed and paying one-half the taxes for each year. Apparently the only agreement made concerning the division of profits was that plaintiff would keep the income from his cattle and that defendant would receive the crops from the property. Plaintiff indicated that the above terms were the complete embodiment of the agreement.

Vera Fox, plaintiff's wife, testified that the terms of the agreement were as follows:

"[S]he [defendant] asked us to come back and pick up the balance of the contract and pay it off * * * for half of the property, and then on her death her part would come to us."

She said this agreement was probably made in the latter part of July of 1975.

Helen Curtis testified that during the summer of 1975 she had $10,000 in a savings account and that she never told plaintiff she was unable to make the payments on the contract. She stated that she discussed the Vineyard arrangement with plaintiff on the telephone and that he told her she was giving too much away. He then added: "Say no more, I'm on my way." It was Mrs. Curtis' understanding that plaintiff wanted to come to Illinois and negotiate a contract and not that the parties had made an agreement over the telephone.

Plaintiff and his wife sold their home in California, and came to defendant's farm on November 19, 1975, accompanied by their adult son and his family. Shortly after their arrival, defendant took plaintiff and his wife to Farmers Bank in Palestine, Illinois, and introduced them to Owen Landrith, the bank president. The three of them indicated that they wanted a written agreement concerning the property and defendant suggested that a trust arrangement could possibly be worked out. Landrith did not recommend a trust; plaintiff further indicated that he was not interested in such an arrangement; and the discussion ended.

Defendant testified that she made numerous other efforts to negotiate a written contract with plaintiff but that he refused or was too busy to talk. Plaintiff acknowledged that a document was supposed to be drafted concerning an agreement but stated that they were unsuccessful in getting together. Defendant denied that the parties ever made an oral agreement for a transfer of the property to plaintiff.

While living on the farm, plaintiff made various improvements to the property, but most improvements were made to enhance the value of his house trailer and personal property. Among other things, he installed a septic tank and leach lines for the house trailer in which he and his wife lived, put up a fence to keep the cattle he had purchased from roaming on the crops, did some repairs to the main farm house, painted the chicken house, wired the house trailer for electricity and helped with the general maintenance of the farm. Notwithstanding the improvements and labor, the farm, which was already in relatively poor condition, continued to deteriorate.

Defendant testified that plaintiff, contrary to defendant's instructions, provided funds for the installment payments for the years 1975 and 1976 and for one-half the real estate taxes for 1974 and 1975, by depositing the money in her account. She then directed her bank not to accept any future deposits in her account from plaintiff.

Roy Midgett, a tenant farmer who pastured his cattle on defendant's farm during 1975 and part of 1976, testified that Mrs. Curtis informed him that her brother-in-law was coming back to Illinois and was going to be a "half owner-manager" of the property. She also informed him that plaintiff was to make the payments and pay all the taxes and receive in exchange one-half ownership during her lifetime and full ownership after her death. Later, in December of 1975, Midgett went to see Mrs. Curtis about moving his cattle, but was told to see plaintiff because he was half owner and manager.

Clarence Bell, a retired farmer who had been employed to "look after" the farm property, testified that defendant informed him in the fall of 1975 that plaintiff and his wife were moving to Illinois; were going to finish making the payments on ...

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