Vietnamese Relatives’ Quiet Title Action Highlights Dead Man’s Statute

Witness Testimony Not in Violation of Dead Man’s Statute in Fraud Case Involving Vietnamese Family

Multilingual certified legal document translation services and deposition interpreter services are often required in cases dealing with inheritance disputes and property disputes. Such cases often require services of Vietnamese to English legal translators; Vietnamese deposition interpreters for on-site depositions and Vietnamese interpreters for remote video depositions. The Dead Man’s Statute seeks to prevent parties with an interest in litigation from testifying against a deceased person about prior communications with the deceased person. The purpose of the rule is to prevent perjury in litigation. In Anh-Duong Thi Ho v. Bach, 5 Wash. App. 2d 1006 (2018) a Washington State appeals court held that the persons testifying about a property transaction that occurred between a set of grandparents and their grandchild actually did not have an interest in that transaction as they had already transferred their interests prior to trial. Their testimony about communications between the deceased grandmother and her grandchild were allowed because they had no financial interest in the case at the time when they provided their testimony.

Couple Emigrates from Vietnam to the US

The grandparents that were the subject of the action emigrated to the US from Vietnam to escape communism. The grandparents were refugees, and eventually they were able to rent a house in Washington State and buy it. After paying off the mortgage, the grandparents owned the home outright and took care of their children and grandchildren in it. While the grandparents did learn English, the trial court found that they were in no way fluent and had relied on their children and grandchildren to act as interpreters for them in everyday matters like writing checks, going to the doctor and dealing with government agencies.

In 2001, the grandparents signed a quitclaim deed transferring their property to one granddaughter. The grandmother claimed that she signed the deed because the granddaughter had convinced the grandparents that they could lose the house if they ever became very ill and could not pay the medical bills. The grandparents claimed that the granddaughter had promised to return the property in the future and would place a provision in the deed to that effect. The deed never included such a provision.

The grandparents continued to live in the house and eventually lived there with one child that had a developmental disability. The Vietnamese-speaking grandparents began asking the granddaughter to return the house to them. The granddaughter said she would put the property back in the grandparents’ names, but despite these requests, she never did. The grandfather died in 2013 and the grandmother died in 2014 after having filed the current lawsuit at the end of 2013.

A Probate Case and a Suit to Quiet Title

The grandchildren submitted a holographic will to the probate court after the grandmother’s passing. The court held that it was not a valid will. Following this and to fulfill their grandmother’s wishes, the children assigned their interests to one sibling to care for the developmentally disabled family member. The disabled child did not assign her interest. The granddaughter’s mother assigned the granddaughter her interest.

After a trial was held in the action to quiet title, the trial court held that the Vietnamese-speaking grandparents did not intend to gift their property to the granddaughter and that they had signed the deed not understanding the document and what it meant. At trial, three of the children testified about the property transaction. The trial court ultimately held that interest in the grandparents’ estate should be divided as follows: (1) 80% going to the sibling that would care for the disabled family member; (2) 10% to the disabled family member; and (3) 10% to the granddaughter.

Granddaughter Appeals the Trial Court’s Ruling

On appeal, the granddaughter maintained that the trial court’s ruling should be reversed because: (1) the trial court erred by admitting testimony in violation of Washington’s Dead Man’s Statute; (2) the statute of limitations for fraud bars the lawsuit; and (3) there was not enough evidence supporting the trial court’s conclusion that there was a “confidential relationship” between the granddaughter and her grandparents and that the grandparents did not intend to gift granddaughter their property. An opposing family member also challenged the trial court’s decision not to disinherit the granddaughter.

Testimony Not in Violation of the Dead Man’s Statute

First, the granddaughter argued on appeal that the trial court erred in allowing the testimony from the other family members about the property transaction. The granddaughter argued that allowing family members with an interest in the deed transaction to testify about it is in violation of Washington’s Dead Man’s Statute. The statute restricts testimony about transactions with deceased individuals if the witness has a vested interest. While evidentiary issues are reviewed for abuse of discretion, the question of whether witnesses were parties in interest was a question of law and was reviewed de novo.

The granddaughter claimed that the statute barred testimony from the other family members because they were parties in interest as they initially held an interest in the property. However, the appeals court reasoned that the family members had already assigned their interests before trial. The granddaughter asserted that the family members became interested parties upon the grandmother’s death without a valid will. However, the appeals court ruled that the witnesses in the current case no longer held any interest in the property as they had assigned their interests to other family members before trial and thus had no financial stake in the litigation’s outcome.

The appeals court reasoned that the current case was similar to the cases where witnesses with no pecuniary interest were allowed to testify.

The granddaughter also argued that the timing of the assignments suggested a tactical rather than economic decision, but the appeals court concluded that the timing was really influenced by the grandmother’s death and the rejection of her will by the probate court. The appeals court explained that witnesses’ qualifications to testify depend on their interest at the time of testifying, and since they had no interest when they testified, they were not disqualified.

Additionally, the granddaughter challenged the assignments because they lacked consideration. However, the appeals court held that this would affect the validity of the assignments and the granddaughter was not challenging their validity.

Statute of Limitations for Fraud Applied as Did Equitable Estoppel

The granddaughter next argued that the trial court should have dismissed the case as time-barred, claiming the gravamen of the claim is fraud, which is subject to a three-year statute of limitations. However, an opposing family member asserted that the action is really one to quiet title, which is not subject to limitations. The appeals court agreed with the granddaughter on this point, holding the claim’s essence is fraud, thus falling under the three-year limit. The parties disputed when the fraud claim accrued. The granddaughter asserted the grandparents had notice of fraud upon signing, as the deed did not match Bach’s representations. The opposing family member claimed equitable estoppel bars the granddaughter’s limitation defense, citing a “confidential relationship” and promises made by the granddaughter. In the end, the appeals court agreed with the latter argument reasoning that the granddaughter’s promises to return the property induced delay. Thus, even though the three-year limitations period applied, the granddaughter was estopped from raising the limitations defense.

Shifting of the Burden of Proof Due to the Confidential Relationship

The granddaughter also contested the trial court’s decision to shift the burden of proof onto her to establish the absence of fraud. In particular, she challenged the finding that she had a “confidential relationship” with her grandparents, thereby requiring her to rebut a presumption of fraud. When a confidential relationship exists, the appeals court explained that the burden shifts to the donee to prove a gift’s validity. The trial court found substantial evidence supporting the existence of a confidential relationship based on familial ties, cultural expectations, and the granddaughter’s role in assisting her grandparents with their affairs. The granddaughter challenged the trial court’s assertion that she held a professional position at the time of the transfer, arguing it lacks substantial evidence. However, the appeals court reasoned that even without her being a doctor at the time, other evidence supported the finding of a confidential relationship. Ultimately, the appeals court held that substantial evidence supported the trial court’s determination, thus affirming its decision to shift the burden of proof onto the granddaughter regarding the nature of the transfer.

Extrinsic Evidence Showed Property Was Not Intended as a Gift

Finally, the granddaughter argued that the trial court erred when it concluded that the grandparents did not intend to gift the house to her, particularly contesting the use of extrinsic evidence to interpret an unambiguous deed. Normally, if a deed’s language is clear, extrinsic evidence is not considered, but exceptions in cases involving fraud exist. Since the trial court found fraud in the execution, it appropriately used extrinsic evidence to determine whether or not a gift was intended. Additionally, in cases involving a confidential relationship, evidence must show the gift was made freely and with understanding. Courts have used extrinsic evidence to ascertain intent in such cases. The granddaughter claimed a legal presumption of validity for gifts between close family members, relying on the trial court’s recognition of her closeness to her grandfather. However, the appeals court held there is no such established presumption and mere love and affection do not override evidence of fraud. The trial court’s conclusion that the property was not intended as a gift was affirmed.

The Cross Appeal Fails

The opposing family member cross-appealed on the issue of whether the trial court should have disinherited the granddaughter. The granddaughter contended that disinheriting her was not a viable remedy in the current case. She argued that the dispute revolved around Washington’s slayer statute, which prohibits a financial abuser from inheriting any property from the decedent’s estate. The granddaughter argued that actions under this statute fall under the “Trust and Estate Dispute Resolution Act” (TEDRA), requiring a separate judicial proceeding. The appeals court agreed with the granddaughter on this point as well. It held that the disinheritance of the granddaughter should be the subject of a separate action.

Get in touch with All Language Alliance, Inc. to obtain certified translation of legal documents from any foreign language to English and to hire a deposition interpreter for an on-site deposition, or a deposition interpreter for a remote video deposition in any foreign language, including Vietnamese, Japanese, Hebrew, German, Thai, French, Polish, Hungarian, Armenian, Haitian Creole, Mandarin, Amharic, Cantonese.

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