Appeal from the Circuit Court of the 13th Judicial Circuit, Grundy County, Illinois. No. 95--LM--35, 95--LM--36. Honorable Robert H. Adcock, Judge Presiding.
Released for Publication October 30, 1996.
Present - Honorable Tom M. Lytton, Justice, Honorable Michael P. McCUSKEY, Justice, Honorable John F. Michela, Justice. Justice Michela delivered the opinion of the court: McCUSKEY J. and Lytton, J., concur.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Michela
JUSTICE MICHELA delivered the opinion of the court:
Stephen B. Mann and his son Stanley Mann (plaintiffs) filed a complaint in forcible entry and detainer (735 ILCS 5/9--101 et seq. (West 1994)) against their brother and uncle, John Berry Mann and his wife Mary L. Mann (defendants). Defendants also filed a complaint in forcible entry and detainer against the plaintiffs (735 ILCS 5/9--101 et seq. (West 1994)). Upon the agreement of the parties the cases were consolidated for a bench trial. Plaintiffs, as lessees sought to enforce the terms of a written "Crop Share Farm Lease" (lease) executed with John Mann, the father of plaintiff Stephen and defendant John Berry, which allowed them to farm land known as "parcel number five" (the realty) for a term of 15 years. Defendants succeeded to the title of the realty upon the death of John Mann and sought to terminate the lease upon the ground that the leasehold was a tenancy at will; alternatively, defendants contended the lease was terminable because the plaintiffs were in breach of the terms of the lease. The trial court ruled the lease was a tenancy for years and enforceable against both plaintiffs and defendants for the duration of the leasehold. The trial court further found plaintiffs were not in breach of the lease; and, alternatively ruled that if a breach did occur, it was immaterial and entered judgment in favor of plaintiffs.
Defendants appeal the judgment and certain evidentiary rulings rendered by the trial court. We affirm.
The lease was properly executed between John Mann and plaintiffs on June 10, 1993, and properly recorded on June 11, 1993, at 2:56 p.m. A term in the lease provided that the lessees were to submit annual reports to the lessor on forms provided by the lessor. During a second transaction on or about June 10, 1993, John Mann executed a quitclaim deed (deed two) conveying the realty to the defendants, reserving a life estate in himself and expressly providing that "this conveyance is made subject to the terms of the [lease]." Deed two was also properly recorded on June 11, 1993, at 3:03 p.m. John Mann died on November 15, 1993. On September 22, 1994, defendants notified plaintiffs of their intent to terminate the lease and provided further notice of the termination by letter on March 24, 1995, claiming plaintiffs were in breach of the lease for their failure to provide the lessor with an annual report concerning finances and recordkeeping.
At trial, plaintiff Stephen testified he had farmed the realty under an oral lease agreement with John Mann since 1980. During cross-examination, Stephen was asked why he and his father decided to execute a written lease after farming the realty under an oral lease for 13 years. Plaintiffs' counsel objected on the basis of relevancy and defendants argued the answer was relevant to construing John Mann's intent in executing the lease and deed two. The trial court sustained the objection.
During defendants' case-in-chief they unsuccessfully sought admission of two legal documents, John Mann's will and a third quitclaim deed (deed three) which was also executed by John Mann on or about June 10, 1993, and recorded after 3:03 p.m. on June 11, 1993. Defendants argued deed three was contemporaneous with both the lease and deed two. Defendants reasoned deed three would be helpful in resolving any ambiguity caused by the lease and its impact upon their possessory interest in the realty. The trial court ruled that this extrinsic evidence was inadmissible because the lease and deed two were not ambiguous and John Mann's intent as both grantor and lessor must be construed from the words of the documents themselves.
We first address defendants' argument that the trial court committed reversible error in refusing to admit John Mann's will and deed three into evidence. We do not dispute defendants' reliance on the long-standing principle that "deeds and contracts executed contemporaneously, must be construed together." Clodfelter v. Van Fossan, 394 Ill. 29, 67 N.E.2d 182, 184 (1946). However, it is an equally long-standing principle that "the nature and extent of the estate granted shall be determined, as a matter of law, from the deed itself." Rockford Trust Co. v. Moon, 370 Ill. 250, 18 N.E.2d 447, 448-49 (1938). Further, the grantor's intent is to be construed from the four corners of the deed. See generally Rockford Trust Co., 370 Ill. 250, 18 N.E.2d at 449. If, however, a deed is ambiguous, extrinsic or parol evidence may be used. Foster v. Foster, 273 Ill. App. 3d 106, 112, 652 N.E.2d 350, 354, 209 Ill. Dec. 810 (1995).
Similarly, the intentions of the parties to a contract, such as a lease, are to be determined from the document itself. Mayol v. Weiner Cos., Ltd. 98 Ill. App. 3d 985, 986-87, 425 N.E.2d 45, 47, 54 Ill. Dec. 533 (1981). In the event of an ambiguity within the lease, extrinsic evidence may be used. Mayol, 98 Ill. App. 3d at 987, 425 N.E.2d at 47. Evidentiary rulings are within the discretion of the trial court and, absent an abuse of discretion resulting in prejudice to the objecting party, the rulings will not be disturbed on appeal. Smith v. Black & Decker, Inc., 272 Ill. App. 3d 451, 650 N.E.2d 1108, 209 Ill. Dec. 135 (1995).
The trial court did not abuse its discretion in refusing to admit copies of John Mann's will and deed three. The lease speaks for itself. There is no ambiguity in its terms that plaintiffs Stephen and Stanley shall farm the realty for 15 years. Likewise, deed two is unambiguous. Deed two conveys the realty to defendants John Berry and Mary, reserving a life estate in the grantor, John Mann. This deed also makes the conveyance of the realty subject to the terms of the lease. These documents, when construed together as contemporaneous written instruments, indicate John Mann wished one son to farm the realty for 15 years while he wished for another son to own the realty in fee. These documents further indicate that John Mann foresaw the contingency of his death during the leasehold's term. Thus, the provisions of deed two indicate John Mann's intent upon the event of his death.
Deed two unambiguously demonstrates that if John Mann died during the life of the leasehold, he intended the remaindermen to honor the terms of the leasehold agreement. On their face, these documents present no ambiguity. Thus, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in refusing to admit John Mann's will and deed three. Nor do we agree the trial court abused its discretion in sustaining plaintiffs' objection to defendants' query to Stephen on cross-examination as to why John Mann wanted to execute a written lease. This question's only purpose was to delve into the grantor's intent which the trial court, in its sound discretion, deemed irrelevant in the absence of any ambiguity within the lease and deed two. Smith, 272 Ill. App. 3d at 458, 650 N.E.2d at 1114-15.
Defendants next contend the trial court erred when it found the realty remained subject to the leasehold agreement. Specifically, defendants argue that "a life tenant cannot make a lease for a longer period than his own term unless joined by the remainder-man, and his lessee, upon the death of the life tenant, becomes a tenant by sufferance or at will." Craig v. Launer, 346 Ill. App. 234, 104 N.E.2d 830, 832 (1952). Defendants maintain that as remaindermen they are bound to a non-freehold estate which will last for a term longer than John Mann's life. Defendants further contend that since they were not a party to the lease at its execution and because they have succeeded to title in the realty, the leasehold has been transformed into a tenancy at will. Defendants ...