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Stokely v. Stokely

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Knoxville

January 19, 2018

WALTER STOKELY, ET AL.
v.
JAMES STOKELY, ET AL.

          Session October 18, 2017

          Appeal from the Chancery Court for Greene County No. 2015-0133 Douglas T. Jenkins, Chancellor

         This appeal arises from a family dispute over a life estate. Charles Eason, Thomas Eason, Marsha Grayer, and Walter Stokely ("Petitioners") filed suit against their siblings Anna Eason, James Stokely, and Mark Stokely ("Respondents") in the Chancery Court for Greene County ("the Trial Court") seeking partition of their late mother's home and property which they all had inherited but to which they had executed a quitclaim deed to sister Anna Eason to hold as life tenant. Respondents filed an answer asserting that Anna Eason was the life tenant and the land was not subject to partition. Respondents asserted the statute of limitations as a defense, as well. After a trial, the Trial Court dismissed Petitioners' lawsuit. Petitioners' appeal, arguing that Respondents waived the statute of limitations as a defense through abandonment and also that the Trial Court erred in not reforming the deed when the parties did not understand it would create a life estate for Anna Eason. We hold, inter alia, that Respondents properly pled the statute of limitations and could rely upon it. We hold further that Petitioners' lack of knowledge regarding all the implications of a life estate is not, in itself, a basis for reforming the deed. We affirm the Trial Court.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Chancery Court Affirmed; Case Remanded

          E. Ronald Chesnut, Greeneville, Tennessee, for the appellants, Charles Eason, Thomas Eason, Marsha Grayer, and Walter Stokely.

          Douglas L. Payne, Greeneville, Tennessee, for the appellees, Anna Eason, James Stokely, and Mark Stokely.

          D. Michael Swiney, C.J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which John W. McClarty and Thomas R. Frierson, II, JJ., joined.

          OPINION

          D. MICHAEL SWINEY, CHIEF JUDGE

         Background

         This appeal stems from a dispute among siblings over the home of their deceased mother, Betty Eason. Betty Eason died intestate in 2003. Although the siblings inherited their mother's property upon her death, the siblings were under the impression that they needed to take additional action lest they lose the property. The surviving siblings therefore went through attorney Grant Crum to create a deed. Anna Eason had lived in the home with her mother, and the parties desired to make provision for Anna Eason to continue living in the home as before.

         Attorney Crum interpreted the family's request as one to create a life estate for Anna Eason in the subject property. For non-local siblings, limited power of attorney documents were prepared so that elder brother James Stokely could act on their behalf in the matter. The limited power of attorney contained the following language, in part: "As my attorney in fact, JAMES HOWARD STOKELY shall be and is hereby authorized to . . . execute a quitclaim deed reserving unto Anna Geraldine Eason a life estate in the above named property . . . ." A quitclaim deed also was created, stating the following, in part:

For good and valuable consideration, the receipt of which is hereby acknowledged, We, ANNA GERALDINE EASON, THOMAS ANTHONY EASON, JAMES HOWARD STOKELY, Individually, and JAMES HOWARD STOKELY as attorney in fact for MARK STEVEN STOKELY, MARSHA LOUISE GRAYER, CHARLES PHILIP EASON, and WALTER LEE STOKELY, hereinafter referred to as the GRANTORS, have this day transferred, and by these presents do hereby relinquish, remise, release and quitclaim unto ANNA GERALDINE EASON, THOMAS ANTHONY EASON, JAMES HOWARD STOKELY, MARK STEVEN STOKELY, MARSHA LOUISE GRAYER, CHARLES PHILIP EASON, and WALTER LEE STOKELY, and SUBJECT TO A LIFE ESTATE RESERVED UNTO ANNA GERALDINE EASON, hereinafter referred to as the GRANTEES, any and all interest which we might have in the following described real estate . . . .

         In time, family disagreements arose regarding Anna Eason's status in the home, the particulars of which have no bearing on the legal issues presented on appeal. In 2014 or 2015, Anna Eason discovered that she in fact held a life estate in the subject property. In April 2015, Petitioners filed suit in the Trial Court seeking partition of the property. In September 2015, Petitioners filed an amended petition, alleging in part as follows:

The Petitioners allege that the Respondents, and especially James Stokely, misrepresented the nature of the deed which is in controversy herein, at the time of the execution of same. Specifically, the Plaintiffs were told by the Respondents at that time, i.e. shortly after the demise of the parties' Mother, that the purpose of the "deed" was to transfer ownership of the real property to all of the heirs, i.e. the parties herein being the children of the deceased Mother. There was no mention of a "life estate" to be retained by any one of the children, and certainly not for Anna Eason. However, the parties did agree that the real property was to "remain the same" and further that the sister, Anna Eason, could remain living on the real property.

         In October 2015, Respondents filed an answer to Petitioners' amended petition. Respondents asserted, among other things, the statute of limitations, as follows:

10. Motion to Dismiss - Statute of Limitations: The Petitioners seek the set aside of a purported fraudulent deed which has been of record in the Register's Office for Greene County, Tennessee since April 2, 2004. At no time have any of the Petitioners (who have frequently visited Greene County, or in Thomas Eason's case, a resident of Greene County) sought to avail themselves of redress until after all applicable statutes of limitations have expired (see TCA § 28-3-104, 105 and TCA § 28-3-110).

         This case was tried in August 2016. Attorney Crum testified as to his involvement in the case:

Q. Did you back in 2004 have an opportunity to meet with certain individuals concerning an Estate matter for Betty L. Eason?
A. Yes, I handled the Estate of Ms. Eason.
Q. All right. Do you have a record in your file of who you met with?
A. I have looked through it. I do not have an inventory or a list of each person that was there that day. My recollection is most of the family was there, but not all.
Q. Okay.
A. I think very similar to what you've been discussing here, that a couple live out of state, and I believe one was active military at that time, if I remember correctly.
Q. All right. You remember meeting with more than one person, ...

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