Appeal from Circuit Court of Sangamon County No. 96P25 Honorable Thomas R. Appleton, Judge Presiding.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Presiding Justice Cook
Plaintiff, Marion Knobloch, executor of the estate of Edwin Long, deceased, filed a petition in the estate proceedings to sell farm real estate free and clear of a lease under which defendants Bruce Lyon, his son Jerry Lyon, and Jerry's wife Tia were named as tenants. The petition alleged that the lease was invalid because of Bruce's undue influence. The trial court denied the petition, and on May 27, 1999, entered an order under Rule 304(a) finding no just reason for delaying either enforcement or appeal. 155 Ill. 2d R. 304(a); see also 155 Ill. 2d R. 304(b)(1) (judgment entered in the administration of an estate that finally determines a right of a party). Plaintiff appeals. We reverse and remand with directions.
Edwin Long, the decedent, was born May 22, 1911. Decedent's wife, Eileen, inherited a 134-acre farm in Sangamon County, and the two lived on the farm for many years. Decedent had a fourth-grade education, could not read, and his wife took care of all the bookkeeping regarding the home and farm until her death in August 1991. Decedent was employed for some 30 years at Wagner Casting in Decatur as a "snag grinder," taking burrs off iron castings. Decedent also farmed the 134 acres until approximately 1986. At that time, decedent and his wife began to lease the farm to Bruce in a series of oral one-year leases. The leases were 50-50 crop-share leases. Jerry farmed the land along with Bruce. Bruce owns 70 acres of farmland and farms some 1,200 acres. Jerry owns 10 acres, farms 170 acres, and works for DeKalb Seed Company.
Marion Knobloch lived in a farmhouse a mile away from decedent and Eileen until she and her husband moved to Illiopolis in 1991. After Eileen's death, Marion went by decedent's home almost daily to read the mail to him, tell him what he had to do, and write letters for him. Marion, with some help from decedent's sons and their wives, did all the bookkeeping for decedent. Decedent signed his own name to checks, but someone else filled them out for him. Marion also spoke with decedent daily on the phone.
Decedent and his wife had four children, Shirley Littrell, Sharon Bolay (who lived in Scottsdale, Arizona), Jerry E. Long, and Larry Long. On September 15, 1993, decedent executed a last will and testament, which provided:
"I own certain farm real estate pre-viously owned by my late wife, Eileen Long, containing in total, 134 acres more or less. As soon as is conveniently possible after my death, and in all events, within six months after my death, I direct that the 134[-]acre tract be sold at public auction for cash. Said acreage shall be offered for sale and sold as two separate tracts. One tract shall contain my residence and all outbuildings and shall be not more than five acres in size. The other tract shall consist of the balance of the 134 acres."
In November 1993, decedent was hospitalized for pain in his left leg. On December 2, 1993, decedent executed a codicil, adding Bruce as a coexecutor of his will. The other executor was Marion Knobloch. At decedent's request, Bruce took decedent to the offices of decedent's attorney to execute the codicil. Bruce testified that decedent told him he wanted him to be an executor because his children did not trust Marion Knobloch. The children agree that they wanted Bruce to be coexecutor with Marion.
In April 1994, decedent was treated for bronchitis. In June 1994, all four of decedent's children petitioned the court for the appointment of a guardian of decedent's person and estate. Decedent contested the petition, and on the children's motion the petition was dismissed October 20, 1994.
Two or three days before November 1, 1994, Bruce presented an eight-page written farm lease, prepared by Bruce's attorney, to decedent, and left a copy at decedent's home. The trial court ruled the estate waived any Dead-Man's Act objection (see 735 ILCS 5/8-201 (West 1996)) to that testimony. The lease provided for a 15-year term, commencing March 1, 1995, and ending on the last day of February 2010. Bruce testified that he read and explained the lease to decedent, but that testimony was later excluded as violating the Dead-Man's Act. Bruce and decedent signed the lease at decedent's home. Jerry and Tia later signed the lease as lessees. Neither decedent's family nor Marion learned of the 15-year lease until after decedent's death.
Decedent was hospitalized with a hernia problem in February 1995. In July and August 1995, decedent was hospitalized and diagnosed with metastic cancer. At that time, decedent executed a health-care power of attorney in favor of Bruce. Bruce made health-care decisions for decedent during this hospital stay. Decedent died December 14, 1995. Decedent's will was admitted to probate January 10, 1996. Bruce resigned as coexecutor on February 27, 1996.
Decedent's attorney, Robert Walbaum, testified that he had never seen a 15-year farm lease. Gene Meurer, with 29 years' experience in farm management and appraisals, testified that a long-term lease will reduce the sales value of a farm considerably, because it takes the active farmers out of the market. Meurer testified that he had never seen a 15-year farm lease, that the customary lease was an annual lease, which may be renewed for extended periods. With an annual lease, the owner can always talk with the operator of the farm to make plans and necessary changes in technology or whatever. It is common with 50-50 leases today for the operator to pay some supplemental rent.
Bruce testified that he was able to farm the land under a contract with De Kalb Seed Company, which he estimated increased the farm revenue $16,049.21 annually. De Kalb Seed Company paid for the seed, a benefit to decedent, and did the combining, a benefit to Bruce. Bruce testified he wanted the 15-year lease because he was going to put in half the tiling and he had to buy expensive machinery, a long-term proposition. Bruce knew of the petition for the appointment of a guardian and knew that petition had been voluntarily withdrawn on October 20, 1994.
On December 22, 1998, the trial court ruled that decedent's naming of Bruce as his coexecutor did not create a special relationship, that "a person is not an executor until he or she is appointed by the court and the office is accepted," and "no fiduciary relationship existed at the time the lease was executed." Although Bruce agreed to be executor before the lease was signed, Bruce was "simply respond[ing] to an inquiry by the decedent." It was "noteworthy that the suggestion" to serve as coexecutor "did not originate with decedent but with his children." The court found no evidence that the decedent reposed trust and confidence in Bruce. Bruce was simply the tenant farmer for several years, "helped the decedent as a neighbor on several occasions," and did not in any way "influence the decedent in the management of his affairs."
The court stated that although "decedent had suffered reversals in his health and could not read or write, there was no evidence that decedent lacked the capacity to make a deed or other conveyance of his property. [Bruce] testified that he read and explained the lease to the decedent." Bruce "knew that decedent was failing," but it was important to Bruce "to keep the ability to farm the ground he had been farming for many years and therefore to put his previously oral arrangement with the decedent" in writing. ...