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In re Estate of Gorton - 167 Vt. 357, 706 A.2d 947 (1997)

Rule:

In a case involving an oral contract to convey land and the Statute of Frauds, the reliance must be something beyond injury compensable by money to warrant enforcement of the contract despite the Statute of Frauds. Payments on the purchase price are not enough to make an oral agreement enforceable. Possession coupled with substantial improvements may be such that the plaintiffs cannot be restored to their former position. Moreover, full performance by one party in reliance on the agreement may support equitable enforcement where the parties cannot be returned to their former position. And full performance by one party and part performance by the other may support an order for specific performance.

Facts:

Leo Gorton, Sr. and Doris I. Gorton owned and operated a farm in Cornwall, Vermont, consisting of 70 acres and a barn on the west side of West Street and forty-two acres and a home on the east side of West Street, where they raised their six children. None of the six children continued in farming. One son and a daughter-in-law lived next door on their own land working in construction. When Doris was diagnosed with cancer in 1986, her daughter-in-law quit her job in at the Middlebury A & P to care for her mother in law. While undergoing chemotherapy treatments, however, Leo died, leaving his share of the farm to his wife Doris. Because Doris wanted to keep the farm in the family, her son and daughter-in-law agreed to pay Doris $ 350 per month and one-half of her real estate taxes, plus provide assistance by maintaining her home and farm and providing for her care. In exchange, Doris agreed that upon her death certain farmland would be conveyed to them. In 1989, Doris visited her attorney, Mike Mathes, and informed him that she had an agreement with Leo Jr. and that Leo Jr. was getting a large part of the farm but no documents were executed. When Doris' cancer became terminal in 1994, her attorney drafted three documents but Doris was not well enough to discuss or sign it. Doris died without signing any documents. 

In 1995, the administratrix of the estate of Doris Gorton sent the son and daughter in law a demand for rent payment of $ 350 per month for the last five months and for one-half of the property taxes on the entire farm for use of the barn and farmlands. They responded by filing a claim against the estate for the barn and the surveyed lands on the basis of the oral agreement with Doris. The administratrix disallowed the claim. The probate court also disallowed the claim. The son and daughter in law requested a trial de novo by jury in superior court, which dismissed their claim against the estate of the deceased. The case was appealed. They alleged that they had an oral agreement with the deceased to provide services and make payments to her during her life in exchange for the transfer of a barn and farmland to them upon her death. They further contended that the superior court erred by concluding that their allegations were insufficient to establish reliance on the oral agreement such that they were equitably entitled to specific performance. 

Issue:

Did the superior court err by concluding that the allegations of specific lands to be conveyed were insufficient to establish reliance on the oral agreement?

Answer:

Yes

Conclusion:

The Supreme Court of Vermont concluded that the superior court erred in holding, as a matter of law, that the facts alleged did not rise to the level that would allow equity to enforce specific performance. Factual disputes could not be decided upon motion for judgment on the pleadings. The trier of fact had to make findings and decide, based on those findings, whether equitable relief was appropriate. The Court however did note that they were not entitled to trial by jury, as they requested specific performance, which was an equitable remedy. The decision of the superior court was reversed and remanded.

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